The Clinton Files

In 1996, a younger me voted for John Hagelin, the Natural Law Party candidate for President.  I admit, I didn’t really know or care much about the party’s views (although their advocacy of Yogic Flying sounded fun), but I couldn’t bring myself to vote for the two major candidates.  Although a registered independent at the time, it was clear that the Republican candidate, Bob Dole, and I were out-of-sync policy-wise.  As for Bill Clinton – well, I supported most of his policies, but I couldn’t get past how Nixonian his administration came across in its misuse of FBI files to gather information on political opponents.

Two years later, investigators cleared both Clintons of all charges in the matter.  While other controversies and scandals soon emerged, the narrative leveled by Clinton’s opponents had worked on me – I had bought into a story that was far from conclusive. Of course, in my defense, the Clinton record up to that point had not exactly been one of forthrightness and moral rectitude.

I think a lot of Americans feel similarly about Hillary Clinton this election season.  There’s not really evidence of any crimes having taken place – but, then again, it’s the Clintons, right?  The most common questions people – especially Democrats – have posed to me this year has involved explaining the Clinton “scandals” to them.  They’re torn between the feeling that Hilary Clinton is not trustworthy and the feeling that Republican accusations, often overhyped and occasionally manufactured, are even less so.

Of the “big three” scandals involving Benghazi, the Clinton Foundation, and e-mails, the supposedly nefarious role of former Secretary of State during and after the Benghazi attacks is the scandal I tell people to ignore — it’s origins are entirely political.

On the evening of September 11, 2012, during his campaign against President Obama, Mitt Romney, upon hearing early reports of the attacks, disregarded the informal lets-leave-politics-out-of-things-on-9/11 ceasefire of the two camps, and immediately and somewhat awkwardly sought to tie them to President Obama’s alleged foreign policy “apologies” for “American values.”

Within several days the new narrative had become that the President couldn’t even bring himself to proclaim that the attacks were by “terrorists” – at least until debate moderator Candy Crowley embarrassed Romney on the issue soon thereafter.

After that narrative failed to stick, Republicans decided that administration officials had intentionally misled Americans in order to seem less culpable for the attacks – the Sunday “talking points” narrative that has since been thoroughly debunked as a combination of minor bureaucratic miscommunication and genuine lack of knowledge as the facts were sorted out.

In what is probably the most fascinating aspect of the greatest non-scandal in modern history, Republican politicians and right-wing media began to take cues from one another in a strange viscous cycle that somehow led to this.  Republicans became so thoroughly enmeshed in their own narrative that, in the end, even relatively honorable politicians like John McCain began to believe the story spun by their own party.

Unlike, Benghazi, the controversies surrounding the Clinton Foundation and those “damn e-mails” actually merit concern.  The Clinton Foundation’s primary goal has been to promote greater networking and cooperation among governments, corporations, and wealthy individuals with non-profit organizations seeking to address serious problems like global poverty and climate change.  This focus differs somewhat from that of a group like the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation which is more direct in providing aid to groups seeking to directly address issues associated with under-development.  The Clinton Foundation’s approach is often a very personalistic one – which was and is part of the problem.

When Clinton served as Secretary of State, the Foundation agreed to restrict its donations, including a ban on donations from wealthy foreign individuals, in order to avoid the perception of interest conflicts.  Many such individuals, however, simply donated to organizations that, in turn, then donated to the Clinton Foundation.

The e-mails that have come to light this year suggests that many of those who donated to the Clinton Foundation later sought personal meetings with Secretary Clinton.  The problem is that, as Secretary of State, she might well have met with such prominent figures, like a Crown Prince of Bahrain, or the famous Nobel Prize winning economist, Muhammad Yunus – whether or not they had donated to the foundation.  There’s no evidence of a quid pro quo, but it looks understandably questionable whether some may have “bought” influence by establishing themselves as prominent supporters – and the Clintons have not done a good job of allaying such suspicions.

Some liberals seized upon a similar dynamic during the first GW Bush administration when they accused Vice President Dick Cheney as being similarly beholden to his earlier business contacts and friends in Halliburton – with some of the more conspiratorially-minded accusing him of having started a war on their behalf.  Such charges were often overblown – but it’s hard to see how any office holder could completely separate themselves from their earlier contacts and associates.  The continuing question of how to institutionalize the separation of moneyed interests, foreign and domestic, from unfair influence over policy-making is a problem this country has barely tackled whether it involves Hilary Clinton, her predecessors, or much of the rest of Washington.

Finally, there’s the mishandling of the e-mails themselves – the most egregious of the blunders that Clinton made.  As the final FBI report suggested, it is doubtful that Hilary Clinton had a private e-mail server installed in her house with the purpose of hiding anything conspiratorial any more than Colin Powell intended to do so with his private e-mail account.  However, it’s also likely that she failed to even consider that she was potentially compromising secret information in an age when cyber-security is a pressing issue – a disturbingly out-of-touch mindset.  Just as important, her decision to have lawyers delete tens of thousands of e-mails under her own terms was unbelievably high-handed, short-sighted, and invariably going to lend credibility to her critics.

The “Filegate” scandal I discussed at the top turned out not to be an example of Nixonian scheming, but, rather, a sloppily run White House that fostered an all-too-permissive culture in regard to ethical rules – a culture notably absent over the last eight years under President Obama.  My fear is that under President Clinton the sloppiness and permissiveness might return – her stint as Secretary of State is not altogether encouraging in this respect.  Of course, looking across the lunacy across the aisle that’s likely to rank among the worst campaigns in history, I also know the alternative could be much, much worse.  This time, I won’t waste my vote this November wishing for a perfect candidate.

Trans-Pacific Partnership –complex and messy

Back in the early nineties, one of the first courses I took in college was Macroeconomics.   During the course, I remember the professor giving the familiar econ 101 spiel about how international trade was based on the principles of comparative advantage.  What really stuck out in my mind, and still does, was her contention that there would be a net economic advantage to simply asking low-tech textile workers to stay home and have the government mail them a check for $120,000 a year.  I can’t verify that number (although I remember it well), but I was largely sold on the importance of international trade agreements by the end of the semester and remember feeling relief when Congress narrowly passed NAFTA the next year.

The real world, however, does not always operate along the nice, simple models presented in an undergraduate introductory economics course – a lesson politicians opposed to current health care reform in favor of allowing “the market to work” should remember.  It’s also something that I need to remind myself when considering the impact of the Trans Pacific Partnership that will greatly reduce remaining tariffs among the US and 11 other countries.  My personal bias is for free trade in its simple, theoretical form, but there are numerous valid concerns about the TPP.

The first concern, and why labor unions are so opposed, is because, in this country at least, labor likely does take the brunt of the negative effects of trade agreements.  A manifestation of the Stolper-Samuelson theory (another economic “theory” that has mixed empirical evidence at best), suggests that countries that are labor versus capital rich (lesser developed countries) will see benefits for workers at the expense of financial, tech, and service-type industries, while capital-rich (including “human capital”) countries will witness disproportionate benefits to the educated and wealthy – thus the argument that trade replaces poorly paid jobs with better paid jobs.  In classic economic theory, however, the disadvantage “factors” lose less than the advantaged factors gains, representing a net economic gain for each country.  In principle, with the political will, money can be re-distributed such that the impact of differential gains is mitigated.  We all also get to buy cheaper stuff at Walmart, which frees up money for other economic activities.

Whatever the empirical findings supporting or contrary to particular economic theories, however, most economists agree that trade is a good thing overall for a country — but with very visible downsides like when Carrier relocates a plant from Indianapolis, as they recently did, and diffuse, and largely invisible, upsides that are hard to isolate from other economic trends.  Trade is as unpopular as it is because people relate to people they see and know losing their jobs more than they appreciate the aggregate savings of spending a dollar less here and there on imported goods or understand whether a new company in their region would exist due to higher profits a company makes from exports and lower costs.

Thus, in general, it’s hard not to support freer trade and some economists have analogized lost jobs to the effect of electric lighting on candle-makers – bad for candle-makers, good for the rest of us.  That being said, the growing income divide in this country is almost certainly, in part, a result of freer global trade – a fact that belies Republican narrative that everyone pretty much gets paid what they’re worth and suggests that we need more, not less, redistribution of income in this country.

Other concerns about the TPP revolve about many of the other provisions of the treaty (the full version has not yet been released to the public).  One of those concerns involves the ability of corporations to sue the US government over unfair trade practices (i.e. potential environmental and labor legislation) at an independent tribunal.  But, as this article points out, such provisions are written into all trade legislation and, since 1993, the US government has been brought before 13 such tribunals – while foreign cases in traditional civil courts number about 700,000.  There is little reason to suspect that the US government will suddenly witness “a flood of lawsuits,” and, if it does, we can simply leave the agreement if we choose.

Another major contention is that the agreement seeks to strengthen and clarify international intellectual property laws.  This is particularly concerning if it makes pharmaceuticals more expensive and inaccessible in poorer countries.  Groups like Doctors without Borders have been vocal about such provisions.  However, as one writer for the Council of Foreign Relations explains, the empirical evidence from past trade deals with similar intellectual properties safeguards seems to suggest that there is little effect on the subsequent price of medicine.  In the end, the issue is an important one – but should there be a surge in accessible drug prices, drug companies have been successfully pressured before to offer alternatives.

Such potentially concerning issues are outweighed, in the end, by other factors that will positively affect lives in the developing countries involved.  More so than any past trade deals, the TPP is said to contain stronger provisions that explicitly protect local environment and fisheries (environmental groups are divided), strengthen labor standards, and promote stronger measures against corruption.  While the estimated economic impact on the US will be quite modest, some countries, like Vietnam, are expected to benefit greatly, potentially lifting millions out of severe poverty.

Some of the most important benefits to the US would be political.  Trade agreements like this are a strong symbolic commitment of the US to the countries involved – and vice-versa.  The US currently has free trade agreements with 20 countries – many of them key allies in volatile regions like Colombia, Jordan, and South Korea.  The political impact of these agreements are sometimes intangible, but nevertheless influential.  Like it or not, we are competing with China for the hearts, minds, allegiances, and pocketbooks of much of Southeast and East Asia.  No country’s leadership would be more gleeful to see the agreement rejected than that of China . . . except maybe a Trump administration.

The politics of trade in the country have become genuinely weird as Republicans compete for blue collar voters while educated, middle and upper class Democrats, many of whom shook their heads at the supposed insanity of the UK choosing to leave the EU, shout their support for Bernie Sanders’ anti-TPP positions.  Hillary Clinton has disavowed a treaty she openly supported, while her new running mate flipped his position as soon as it became clear he would be on the ticket.

There is a precedent to Democrats retreating from free trade stances when it is politically favorable to do so.  The lowest point in the Obama campaign of 2008, for me, occurred when he pandered to his perceived audience by promising to “renegotiate NAFTA.”  All I could do is shake my head and think, “no, you won’t.”  And he didn’t.

When the smoke clears from the campaigns, the Obama administration will still have two months to introduce and pass the TPP during the “lame duck” Congress (it’s unlikely the administration would try sooner).  Freed from the constraints of the current electoral cycle, I think there is a reasonable chance it will pass – a prospect Sanders’ vowed to block in his Monday DNC speech.  If it does, it will benefit most Americans in small ways and hurt some in big ways.  It will help lift many Asians and Latin Americans out of poverty, and improve governance and workplace standards in several countries.  It will likely help the environment in some ways, and harm it in other ways.  As a colleague indicated in his book title, “real world economics” is “complex and messy.”  The weight of evidence suggests, however, that the TPP would be good for the US overall as well as the citizens of the other countries involved.


Wage gap deception

Every year when I teach students about statistics, I offer up a couple canards from both liberal and conservative discourse to show how both ends of the political spectrum play with data in deceptive ways.  I tell the conservative students that man-made global climate change is about as close-to-proven as science gets and that most of those arguing against it are either under-informed or being intentionally deceptive.  I tell the more liberal minded-that the same is true when it comes to those leaders and politicians who use the 77 (now 78) cents to the dollar “wage gap” statistic as liberal “red meat” in order to imply widespread discrimination against women in the workplace.

Arguments against man-made climate change and in favor of the wage gap-equals-discrimination arguments both reflect ignorance of how statistical control works.  When researchers use statistical models to analyze data, they can generally incorporate and account for any known and measured variable in such a way that the effects of the main variables of interests are isolated from other correlated influences.  Thus, one can find out, for instance, the independent effect of carbon dioxide on global temperatures ceterus parabis (“all things being equal”), effectively eliminating other potential measurable sources of climate change like changes in solar radiation, volcanic activity, or ocean currents.

The wage-gap deception is based on a similar misunderstanding of the power of statistical control.  Instead of assuming there are other explanations for the wage gap (as climate change deniers do), wage-gap rhetoric hinges on conveying the impression that there is only a single reason that the median woman earns over 20 cents less than the average man – discrimination.  While it is difficult to measure directly for discrimination, numerous unbiased studies have utilized a variety of variables based on choices of profession, time away from work, and other factors representing different trends in male and female lifestyles and preferences and found that the true wage gap is about 5-6%.  These studies were conducted by organizations like the Department of Labor and academics who crunch such numbers for a living – not exactly groups we think of as being comprised of rock-ribbed conservatives.

So – isn’t 5-6% still bad?  Sure, if you want to insist that the entirety of that estimate reflects discrimination.  There’s some evidence to suggest it isn’t, but the simple truth is that no one can say for sure.  Unfortunately, “94 or 95 cents to the dollar and the rest we’re not sure about” does not exactly make for a great bumper sticker.

Some would argue that women should be encouraged to make different choices about their choice of work and how they balance work and family.  The National Organization of Women and other feminist groups suggest that a main problem is that younger women are discouraged by society from pursuing interests in more lucrative professions like math and science.  There are no quick fixes if they are correct, but certainly I’d agree that cultivating an atmosphere that encourages rather than discourages women to enter such fields is an admirable goal.  On the other hand, I wouldn’t try to convince, say, a Buddhist, to trade fulfillment for a higher pay check, and maybe women are doing a better job of pursuing a fulfilling life than men as-a-whole.

Even if we say that some women might be discouraged by peer, mentor, or societal attitudes from pursuing certain fields, however, it does not let-off-the-hook those who insist on implying the wage gap is based directly on widespread workplace discrimination.  Many public figures, such as the Obama administration figure who was forced to backtrack after using the 77-cents figure as well as President Obama himself, surely know that they are being deceptive – or at least they should.

Since much of the “gap” is attributable to individual choices that tend involve trading “temporal flexibility” for higher pay, pursuing less poorly compensated professions, and time off to raise children, it’s unlikely to change soon.  Laws providing for paid maternity leave are overdue in this country, but such laws might lead to an even larger wage gap in the long term as women exchange work experience for more time with the little ones.

If we want to close the wage gap, however, there is one sure way to do so.  Raise the minimum wage.  Two-thirds of minimum wage workers are women – so raising the minimum wage would disproportionately raise the median income of women.

None of this is suggests that women don’t sometimes face discrimination or that it wouldn’t be good to have more women in government and the higher echelons of business . . . only that more often than not Democrats have the facts on their side in Washington debates and there’s no need to muddy the waters by stooping to the level of those on the other side of the aisle that like to play fast and loose with the truth.

Bad, worse, and worst in the Middle East

Last year I wrote about how I thought that the conflict in Yemen held out more promise for a solution than other conflicts in the region.  Unlike the other conflicts in the region, the Yemen conflict is mainly between two relatively unified factions – the “Houthis,” who are mostly Zaydis, a minority denomination within Shia Islam, and the largely Sunni-supported forces who support Abd Rabbuh Mansar Hadi, who was ousted from the capital in late 2014.  Al Qaeda-allied forces have taken significant territory, including the country’s fifth largest city, and ISIS has made some in-roads as well.  Meanwhile, with logistical support from the US, the Saudi government has conducted a bombing campaign on behalf of Hadi supporters, killing thousands of civilians in the process . . .

. . . and yet Yemen represents the Middle East’s version of a simple conflict. That is why, although Yemen’s conflict is bad, it is also the most readily-resolvable regional armed conflict.  One reason is that the Houthis represent more of a traditional aggrieved minority than a hate-spewing death cult, like Al Qaeda and ISIS.  In addition, since the two main sides are largely locked in a stalemate, negotiations seem like the only way forward for the parties in Yemen.  Currently the two sides are indeed currently negotiating in Kuwait, and, while getting-to-demobilization will not be easy, it is at least conceivable.  Of course that wouldn’t be the end of fighting in Yemen; but one thing both sides have in common is a desire to take on Al Qaeda and ISIS.

The conflict in Libya, on the other hand, is a lot more intractable situation.  The situation is similar to that in Yemen in that there are two big players, Libya Dawn, a religiously conservative political movement that ousted the democratically-elected Parliament from the capital in 2014, and those who support the government’s continuing “Operation Dignity” operations against them.

Although there are parallels with the situation in Yemen, Libya is a more chaotic place – typified by the fact that an Al-Qaeda affiliated group successfully captured the coastal city of Derna from ISIS while Libya Dawn claimed credit.   Unlike Yemen, the opposing sides lack unity and there exists a myriad of well-organized third parties fighting with and against one side or another.  Negotiations held at the end of 2015 were an abysmal failure.

Possibly the biggest obstacle to peace between the two major sides in Libya is the attitude held by the government’s leader general, Khalifa Haftar, as well as many other government supporters, who, like General Sisi of Egypt, equate conservative Islamist religious parties with groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS.  Such a view makes negotiations more difficult and fails to recognize that such political groups actually represent one of the best bulwarks against jihadist groups who reject all politics in favor of violence.

While the situation in Libya is worse than that in Yemen, the situation in Syria remains the worst of all.  Whereas in Yemen and Libya there are at least two major discernable actors, in Syria the Assad government, ISIS, and a hodgepodge of “opposition” militia groups fight with a variety of political goals in mind.  Outside intervention complicates the situation, with the US, Russia, Saudis, Turks, Iran, and other states supporting their own factions and agendas in the country.

The biggest problem in achieving a negotiated peace between opposition groups and the government in Syria lies with the role played the Al-Qaeda allied fighters of al-Nusra.  Unlike ISIS, al-Nusra forces have willingly cooperated with other opposition factions, who regard them as a capable ally.  Given their goals and affiliation, however, Russia, the US, and the Syrian government understandably regard negotiations with the group as inconceivable .  Since al-Nusra forces are often interspersed with other opposition groups, government and Russian bombing campaigns often target both moderate and radical alike in retaliation for al-Nusra attacks.  This renders successful negotiations more difficult than they already are and explains a lot of the difficulties in UN-brokered peace talks.

As to what the US and other countries should do to support the peace processes in these countries – well, we’ve tried the gambit of options in the Middle East.  Invasion in Iraq, “leading from behind” in Libya, modest support of militia groups in Syria – none of it has yielded outcomes making us safer.  Perhaps the best approach we can take is the one we have taken with Israel and its neighbors; namely, be ready to often lots of money to the various parties as an incentive to keep a future peace.  Dollar for dollar such aid might represent a much better investment in future security than our futile search for military solutions and represents a much better idea than simply ignoring these countries once their troubles leave the front page.

Why I’m teaching a student to “gamble” on politics

The last time I wrote this blog back in January, I made a series of off-the-cuff, not so serious predictions for the coming year.  Some were pretty spot on, such as my yearly Oscar best picture prediction or the fact that something called the Zika virus was about to become big news.  Others, such as the potential that, despite a slow start, Marco Rubio might eclipse his rivals – well, not so much.

Since I wrote that list I have read Tetlock and Garner’s Superforecasting, which reinforced something I think we all know but rarely practice conversationally — namely that forecasting the future in any sort of absolute terms is a little silly.  Back in 2008, one of my colleagues insisted, while gently hitting a table, that Barack Obama could simply “no longer be elected President.”   More recently I’ve had colleagues assert that they thought that Jeb Bush was going unify the party, that the most likely outcome of the current primaries will be a brokered convention, and that Donald Trump had little chance of winning the Republican nomination.  None of these outcomes is likely, even if, statistically, none of them is impossible.

That we live in a world defined by probability rather than determinism is a difficult thing to instill intuitively in both colleagues and the students they teach.  At most universities in most courses, students learn that things work in concrete “provable” (“prove” is a word I ban from my courses) ways – whether it’s in math or science or in the typical humanities or social science essay that calls for a strong thesis supported by a bunch of cherry-picked evidence to support the thesis.  Reality, however, is filled with uncertainty and randomness, and the ability to feel one’s way through what’s random and what’s not, the very cornerstone of critical thinking in my mind, is simply not a skill set that students encounter often at their university.

What’s even worse is that the question of what-will-happen-in-the-future seems to be the most common people ask or want to ask.  Students often want to write papers about future events like whether or not Great Britain will leave the EU only to have me remind them that it is difficult to “research the future.”  Similarly, reporters often want “experts” on TV, radio, and print to use that expertise to tell them what the future holds.  As Tetlock and Garner point out, bigger and bolder predictions make for better stories, more popular pundits . . .  and worse predictions.  It might make for good TV, but what we see with expert political predictions is simply what it looks like when someone enthusiastically expresses his or her personal cognitive biases.

Does that mean that we have no ability to predict the political future?  Of course not.  It’s just that most predictions that are likely to be right are also not very interesting.  Will Putin still be president of Russia in six months.  Most likely.  Will John Kasich steal the Republican nomination at a brokered convention?  Unlikely.  It’s the in-between, medium-likelihood events that are the most interesting to predict.

The best way to predict such events – not whether they will happen for sure or not – but, rather, assessing what the likelihood of particular events happening is, is through crowd sourcing.  There is a famous story of the discovery of the “wisdom of crowds” by Francis Galton over a hundred years ago.  He observed that in a contest involving almost 800 people guessing the weight of an ox, that no one got the weight right.  Collectively, however, the guesses averaged out to within one percent of the ox’s weight.

The same principal seems to work with political prediction markets.  There are several that operate with “play money” and a couple that, under the justification that they are for research purposes, allow people to log on an invest their own money.  Several studies   have shown that both systems do a similarly good job of according with the frequency of real world events – much better, in any case, than do most individuals.

Playing the prediction market (in my case for modest sums of money) has not only been fun, but also educational.  As a recent Daily Show piece illustrated, “betting” on politics is a sure way to get people politically involved and can raise political awareness and enthusiasm.

Of course, as an educator, I want to bring some of what I have learned to my students.  While I don’t plan on introducing a Prediction Market 101 course anytime soon, I’ve raised a few eyebrows at work sitting down with a student office assistant on occasion who has taken an interest in the process.  She’s someone who took well to the statistical intuition and basic methods I teach in a course she had with me, and it seemed like a good way to encourage her to continue her education in both politics and the nature of our probabilistic world.  Plus, as I’ve reminded her, the 10 dollars she invested is less than 10% the cost of some of her textbooks – a pretty good price for teaching her not to “grow up” to be the next confident windbag.

As for the real answer to questions like: Who will be the next president?  The best answer, according to prediction markets, is still that Hilary Clinton has about a 60% chance to be in the White House next year (and about a 25% to be indicted on federal charges before then).  Donald Trump only has about a 1 in 4 chance of winning.  A brokered convention is about 40% likely to happen and Great Britain is estimated to have about a 1 in 3 chance of voting to leave the EU in June.  Jeb Bush is still estimated to have a 2% chance of getting the Republican nomination because, well, nothing’s impossible in statistics.

You won’t be everyone’s favorite conversationalist if you start speaking probabilistically about what you think will happen in the future, but you’ll nevertheless be the most correct person in the room.


Predictions for 2016

As we enter 2016, there is only one prediction that everyone cares about.  Let’s start off with a look back at 2012, when I predicted that:

“President Obama will edge out Mitt Romney in the presidential election.  While a lot of factors, including a real lack of support for Obama among independent voters, favor the Republicans, it is hard to imagine Romney out-campaigning or out-debating President Obama. So, Romney, along with his running mate Florida Senator Marco Rubio, will take the vote in Florida, but Obama will win Ohio, Virginia, and enough other battlegrounds to win the election.  He’ll win the popular vote by only 2-3%.”

I did pretty well considering it was only January 2012 and the Republican primaries had not yet begun.  Mitt Romney unwisely chose Paul Ryan as his running mate, lost Florida, as well as Ohio and Virginia, and Obama went on to win with 3.9% of the electorate favoring him.

So, what’s my prediction for 2016?  Well, I could take the easy route and choose Hillary Clinton, who the traders at give a 54% of winning, with challengers Trump, Rubio, and Cruz splitting most of the rest of the odds.

I’m going to take a chance, however, and say that Republicans, in the end, want to win the election, and will select the candidate most likely to do so – which brings me back to my 2012 Vice Presidential prediction – Marco Rubio.  If they choose Rubio, Republicans will be more likely to win than not.  If Rubio chooses a strategically savvy running mate who can balance his youth with a sense of gravitas while delivering a swing state, like Ohio, then I think Rubio would very likely win the election.

So there you have it, my prediction is that a Rubio-Kasich ticket defeats a Clinton-Crist (Crist would make an interesting choice, given that Clinton might not want to concede Florida) ticket in a very close election – one that might even be won with electoral, but not popular, votes.

Or . . . one of the other candidates wins the Republican nomination, says a lot of interesting things, and gets thumped by five or more points in October . . .

2). What about Congress?  Well, in the unlikely event that things unfolded like I just described above, congressional representation would not likely change much.  Maybe a couple additional seats for Republicans in the House with little movement in the Senate.

3). As for all the other things going on in the world, the fate of ISIS is what most interests would-be prognosticators.   I was a bit pollyannaish last year – thinking that, given time, the weight-of-numbers would favor the Iraqi army which, with support from the US and others, would retake Mosul and much of the rest of northern Iraq.  I still stick by this prediction, I just think it was a bit early.  Mosul is apparently heavily fortified, and will take a major effort to win.   My prediction — Mosul will fall to Iraqi forces in December 2016.

As for Syria – I’m actually slightly more hopeful for the upcoming year.  The Russian intervention, as much as it has irritated the Obama administration and Turkey, might be a blessing in disguise as the Russians will be increasingly motivated to find a solution to the ongoing crisis – even if it means pushing Assad aside.  After five years of conflict, I think this is the year that things get serious negotiation-wise in Syria.

In the West, however, ISIS will be as big a threat as ever.  Now that ISIS has realized what Al Qaeda never did – that mass carnage is more accessible with firearms than it is with explosives – I would expect more ISIS-inspired shootings to occur.

4).  Even deadlier this year than ISIS, Nigerian-based Boko Haram continued to grow stronger in 2015.  There is no evidence that the Nigerian government will make any more inroads against the group in 2016 and will, in desperation, probably seek to negotiate some sort of settlement with the group – perhaps even offering a safe haven in northeast Nigeria.  This will be a bad idea.

5). Vladamir Putin was another boogeyman in the West in 2015.  After taking territory in Ukraine year, many predict more potential problems in other places home to Russia diaspora – like Estonia.

I’d argue that Putin is effectively deterred in areas under NATO control, like the Baltics, and has no interest in alienating governments in Central Asia, like Kazakhstan, which, while home to sizable Russian minorities, maintain relatively close ties to Moscow.

Putin’s main goal in 2016 will be to undo the diplomatic and economic fallout of Russian actions in 2015.  This year will witness Putin attempt to play the part of wise man and peacemaker.  He may not get very far with the West, but 2016 will see a very different face of the Kremlin.

6). The Trans Pacific Partnership treaty that was signed in October has not played a major role in the Presidential primaries because both Democrats have come out against it, most Republicans are in favor of it, and nobody wants to touch it during election season.  Nevertheless, the White House has stated that they would like a Congressional vote on the treaty sooner rather than later.  My guess – the White House tries to trot it out in the spring, finds that Mitch McConnell was right in suggesting that a vote wait until after the election, tables the idea for a while, and later a lame-duck Congress approves it as President Obama’s last achievement as he’s headed out the door.

7). Mahmoud Abbas is old and increasingly without either purpose or legitimacy as head of the Palestinian Authority.  By the end of the year, he will either be out or on his way out of the door.

8).  Searching for a positive story for the year, I like this prediction from Al Jazeera:

“Keep an eye on Cyprus, an island divided since 1974. ‘The Cyprus Problem’ has defeated international diplomats for decades, but there are hopeful signs that Greek and Turkish leaders on the island are actually serious about reunification.”

Sounds good to me.

9). My tech prediction for the year is somewhat personal.  Epidural stimulation for spinal cord injuries is the real deal and set to be tested on dozens of people over the next couple years.  So far it has worked on all four people that it has been tested on.  The sight of paralyzed people standing up again will make for some good visuals for the journalists out there.  The introduction of this technology might even be bigger medical story than the impending deluge of Zika virus stories we are likely to see this year.

10).  And, finally, my prediction for the Best Picture Oscar goes to . . .

Spotlight – because it’s already heavily favored and fits the modus operandi of the Academy, which likes stories about people overcoming injustice.

Finally, as a bonus, my Superbowl prediction is the Arizona Cardinals over the Pittsburgh Steelers – let’s say 27-17.  As with my other predictions, make sure you put some money on it.  Happy 2016 everyone!

The past year in predictions

I haven’t gotten around to reading it yet, but I’m looking forward to Philip Tetlock’s new book, Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction, which is based on oft-cited and interesting work Tetlock has conducted over the last decade that tries to understand what types of people are good at making predictions about the world.  In Time magazine this week, Joel Stein summarizes Tetlock’s findings by describing a good forecaster as someone who 1) has a habit of keeping track of their failures (check); 2) a disbelief in fate (sort of); 3) a willingness to consult experts (do the links count?); 4) a vague proficiency at mathematics (that’s about right); and 5) not famous (bingo).  So keeping in mind that, like most “dart throwing chimps,” I only meet some of the requirements of a good forecaster, here’s another humbling look at the predictions I made for 2015.

1). I predicted Scott Walker would be leading the pack of Republican contenders at this point.  Did you believe me? I also thought Tim Pawlenty would be the favorite by the end of 2011.  Apparently I still don’t quite understand the Republican mind.  I was right about one thing, however – that things would be “fluid” and that it would be hard to predict during any given month what the outcome would be.  As for Trump – I didn’t see that coming.  Onto the next failed prediction . . .

2). Northern Iraq will be mostly under the control of Iraqi forces.  Nope.  As a matter of fact, despite recent successes, ISIS controls more territory in Iraq than it did at the beginning of the year.  The momentum seems to be shifting, however.

3). Okay, I’ve been pretty good at predicting economic growth in the past.  According to the NY Times, the best estimate of annual US GDP growth for 2015 is about 2.5%.  I predicted 3-3.5%. So, my estimate was a bit high, but not as catastrophically wrong as the first two predictions.

4). My next prediction was about Venezuela and the instability I expected it to witness after it held parliamentary elections this past month.  The elections resulted in a trouncing of the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela, led by President Nicolás Maduro, by the opposition MUD party.

To Maduro’s credit, the violence I anticipated would follow government shenanigans either in terms of the election itself or over the results have yet to materialize.  Venezuela’s still a mess, however, and it remains to be seen how the new state-of-affairs will play out.  But, I was wrong on this prediction too, for now . . .

5).  Sadly, I was correct on my fifth prediction, however.  Despite being a bit of an underdog, Benjamin Netanyahu pulled out a victory in the March Israeli election over Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni, in part by playing to some of the worst instincts of parts of the Israeli public.  Any hope of peace with Palestinians is even further away now.

6).   On a happier note, I was correct that the US – Iranian nuclear talks would succeed.  While it came down to the wire, the moderates on both sides won the day.  Whatever the naysayers think, this deal is likely to pave the way to a new era of semi-cooperation with Iran on important issues, especially when it comes to rolling back ISIS.  That is, unless the next US President is a Republican who decides to back out of it.

7).  I predicted that tensions in Ukraine would simmer down.  They have.  Vladamir Putin even offered some words of reconciliation with the West this month.  And why shouldn’t he?  Putin is playing a long game in which he is willing to trade a stable Russian economy in the short-term for permanent gains in territory and influence in the long-term.  Soon it will be business-as-usual with Russia while the Crimea remains under their control and the Donbas region remains a permanently frozen conflict.

8). In October, negotiators reached an agreement on the Trans Pacific Partnership trade treaty, which was a bit earlier than I expected (I said probably not by year’s end).  Congress will vote on it during the coming months.  I’ll save my prediction about the outcome for my next posting.

9). I predicted that “things in Syria will still be a mess.”  No surprise there, although maybe I should have predicted that they’d be an even bigger mess.

10). Speaking of an even bigger mess, I predicted that the US government, finding common cause against ISIS and Al Qaeda, would increase its cooperation with Houthis in Yemen after they seized control of the government.  Instead, Saudi Arabia, with an unfortunate measure of US support, launched a bombing campaign against the Yemeni government that continues to this day.  Meanwhile, ISIS has taken advantage of the chaos to grow even stronger in the region.

11). Another hopeful prediction was that Afghanistan would look more stable by this time of the year.  The fall and recapture of Kunduz this year was emblematic of the fight there.  Afghanistan neither appears stable nor like it’s going to fall apart (although the Taliban itself, might, which could be good news or bad news).  The country is still treading water, and it looks like the lingering US presence there will continue to be there for a while.

12). I predicted that the Colombian government and FARC, the longest running insurgency in the world, would reach an agreement to end the conflict there.  In this case, I was halfway right.  The two sides have taken a piecemeal approach to negotiations, and have agreed to several major important measures.  The hardest measure in ending civil conflict, however, entails how to convince rebels to demobilize and hand over their weapons.  This last, big hurdle remains in 2016.

13). I predicted that 3D technology would become the next-big-thing in 2015.  I jumped the gun a little on that – but I stand by the prediction.  The year 2016, and beyond, will see some really interesting tech inventions with 3D technology.

14). I predicted that New England would win the Superbowl – in a blowout.  Well, they won, but not in a blowout.  And they may only have won because of Pete Carroll’s not-so-crazy goal line decision-making.

15). And, finally, the last prediction.  This year, I seemed to have failed at more predictions than usual. At least I have my flawless record of Academy Award Best Film predictions to fall back on.  In January of last year, I suggested that the Academy would prefer a movie about people in the entertainment industry – like themselves – and select Birdman to win.  And for the fourth straight year I got this one right.  If only politics were so simple.

The least worst path in Syria

With everything going on with Syria and ISIS these days, you would think I’d be eager to offer my solutions to the problems facing the Middle East and, now, after the tragic events of the last couple weeks, the West.  After all, there is no shortage of commentators and politicians offering up their recipes for combating ISIS –everything from “bomb the hell out of them” to vague pleas for multilateral partnerships that will somehow save the day.

Sadly, there are no easy plans for combating ISIS that don’t involve major drawbacks.  If we were to invade like we did in Iraq, the outcome would likely turn out poorly.  If we do little as we did in Afghanistan in the nineties, then the outcome likely turns out poorly.  If we support the Kurds, Turkey objects.  If we stopped opposing the Syrian government, which is politically impossible anyway, we’d lose the limited cooperation offered by the Saudis and the Turks. We try to create our own militias, and they end up disappearing or cooperating with al-Nusra, Al-Qaeda’s Syrian proxy.  Finding a recipe to the ISIS and Syria problem is like finding a recipe for un-cooking an omelet.

The US administration’s slow-and-steady “just trust us” approach hasn’t convinced the majority of Americans.  The administration is presumably hoping that if it wears down ISIS enough – hollows it out financially and militarily – that something good will happen.  Presumably that something is an offensive by the Iraqi army, “friendly” rebel forces, and perhaps a spontaneous uprising within ISIS territory akin to the Iraq Awakening movements that turned the tide of the Iraq War.  Then the remaining “good guys” of the Free Syrian Army will defeat or put enough pressure on the Assad government that its leadership steps down and the other Islamist forces battling the government agree to a negotiated settlement and democratic order. US policy is based on the hope that a lot of things will go right.

Russian policy is based less on luck and more on coldblooded pragmatism.  The Russians view the re-assertion of control by the Syrian government over its territory as the best path to ending the violence.  It might be sad that this would involve killing a lot of well-meaning insurgents and ensuring that Syria remains a dictatorship ruled by a minority group, but that’s the way it is.  As horrible as the Assad government might be, the likely alternative, a government aligned with ISIS or Al Qaeda, is worse.

While all the regional players are primarily motivated by their ethno-sectarian affinities and fears, the American and Russian are the only coherent alternatives forward for the rest of the world.  Which is the better path?

The Russian course is the one that is more likely to bring an end to the Syrian civil war and ISIS’s control over territory in the region.  Their desire to apply the principle of Occam’s razor applies to a complex, multi-sided civil war may be distasteful, even tragic, but there’s an undeniable logic to it.

Outside powers might not like what the Russians are doing, which is why Turkey felt compelled to provoke a confrontation with them this past week, but there’s not much anyone can do to prevent the Russians from helping the Syrian government.  In the end, the US is best to stay the course it’s on with ISIS, while continuing to help the Kurds and Iraqi government strengthen their capabilities to reestablish order in their own territories.  At least that’s my best guess about one of the most complicated problems the world has faced in modern times.

Doctors, Lawyers, and Businessmen in Politics

I’m teaching my annual course on Research Methodology this semester, which probably sounds as dull as dirt to most people.  What I do with the course, however, is not simply teach students where to look things up, but rather how to think critically (as well as I understand such a subjective term).  This requires getting the students to unlearn a lot of what they learned about how to think and write.  Mostly, they’ve learned a very lawyerly approach to knowledge in which all facts are somewhat subjective, cherry-picked quotations from authoritative “experts” make for good evidence, and making a convincing argument is more important than how the argument was derived in the first place (admittedly, this blog does those things as well).  Most students leave college having learned this argument-in-search-of-evidence approach to thinking and learning, which is probably why some evidence suggests that higher education is not very good at teaching critical thinking.  Some of those students will go on to be future leaders.

I, like many people, do not have the impression that most of our current leaders and would-be leaders are particularly good at thinking critically about the issues of the day.  As it stands now, Donald Trump and Ben Carson lead the Republican field by a relatively large margin in polls, while Hillary Clinton holds a large lead over her only other viable competitor.  Donald Trump may be seen as a consummate outsider and Clinton as a consummate insider, but their backgrounds in law and business are shared by about half of Congress.  Carson, on the other hand, is one of a relatively small minority of doctors in Congress, who only make up approximately 5% of the combined House and Senate.  It is worth asking, however, what being a businessman, doctor, or lawyer really brings to the table intellectually when it comes to whether these are the best backgrounds for our leaders.

Let’s start with the businessman.  If you’re reading this blog, Donald Trump likely comes across to you as laughable, cringe-worthy, or somewhere in between.  However, many people who support Trump would cite his experience in running businesses as a reasonable qualification for running a country.  Aside from the question of whether Trump was actually a good businessman, would being one qualify someone to run the country.  Perhaps when it comes to interpersonal skills the answer might be yes. However, if the question is whether business leaders necessarily understand macro-economics, the answer is clearly no.  For a detailed explanation of why a company is not a country click here , but a lot of what it gets down to is that, as we witnessed in 2008, what might be in the individual self-interest of companies can turn out to be collectively disastrous. The problem, however, is not simply that Trump’s business experience would not necessarily translate into economic success. When he boasts that he will be “the greatest jobs President God has ever created,”, it’s not clear that Trump himself understands the limits of his background.

Which brings us to the doctor.  Ben Carson arguably overestimates his own qualifications more than Trump.  Since he was a neurosurgeon, many of his supporters undoubtedly think of him as a scientist as well.  However, his pronouncements on issues from the big bang to evolution have, to say the least, raised a few eyebrows among actual scientists.  The reason for this disconnect is that doctors are not, as a profession, scientists (although some do choose to pursue both routes) any more than construction workers are engineers.  The practices and treatments underlying medicine are developed by scientists, but doctors are applied practitioners, not researchers, and thus are often unfamiliar with both the mindset and methods that scientists employ (this is especially true of areas outside of the health sciences, but often times even within.  When I visited the neurosurgeon who once operated on my spinal cord, he told me he was afraid I would catch a cold because I had worn shorts to his office that day.  He wasn’t kidding).

The large majority of doctors who are in Congress are Republicans.  It is unlikely that very many of them understand how out of their element they are when discussing issues like climate change.  Like Carson, most are simply ignorant of their ignorance, and yet venerated by many of those who elect and pay them to understand complicated issues.

So, what about lawyers – the single largest professional background of our national leaders?  For reasons I started off discussing, I often suggest to my students that legal reasoning is pretty much the opposite of scientific reasoning.  Does that mean Clinton is also unqualified to lead?  Well, not necessarily.  First, she hasn’t been a lawyer in a long time, and has had lots of time, as an insider, to learn valuable lessons about policy.  Second, since lawyers don’t even claim to be scientists or economists, they are at least able to consider different claims and counterclaims with a more open-mind than someone who wrongly consider themselves experts on a subject.

Nevertheless, those with legal backgrounds in government almost certainly tend to base their judgments more on their political and personal biases than any deep understanding of the issues they consider – even when they end up on the right side of an issue.

If business leaders, doctors, and lawyers all have major shortcomings when it comes to handling the complex issues of the age, what professional backgrounds might be better off replacing some of their seats in government?

For starters, how about more actual scientists and economists?  Out of 535 members of Congress, there are currently two natural scientists with higher level degrees and one economist.  Let’s hope that the rest of Congress and the presidential candidates at least have a few actual experts cued up in their cell phones.  Or better yet, is there still time for Neil Degrasse Tyson to throw his hat in the ring?

Texians and Ukrainians

My research over this last summer took me to an interesting place for an international relations scholar.  It took me to Texas.  I didn’t literally travel to Texas, but surrounded myself with everything I could find about Texas in the 1830s and 1840s, a time when Texans (or Texians as they were originally called), fought for their independence from Mexico and their eventual incorporation into the United States.

The project originated with an invitation to speak on a panel next year that will be chaired by the well-known international relations scholar, John Mearsheimer, on the topic of Nationalism in International Relations, which just happens to be the name of my first book.  In particular, I’ve been interested in how strongly one could draw parallels between Texas’ history and similar modern day separatist movements that have been encouraged by outside countries such as the events of eastern Ukraine and Russia’s involvement.

While drawing analogies is always a dubious business when thinking about international events, as a way of straightening out my thoughts before writing something more formal, allow me offer a few similarities and differences between Texas in the 1830’s.  First the similarities:

1). Texans and Eastern Ukrainians both started their uprisings during times of transition in their homelands that provided both motivations and opportunities for separatism.  For the Texans, it was Santa Anna invoking emergency powers under the Mexican Constitution of 1824 and using those powers to dissolve Parliament and state governments.  This caused uprisings in several areas of Mexico besides Texas, and the Texans, who were appalled at the “absolutism” that had replaced fragile Mexican democracy, viewed the chaos as a limited window of opportunity.

For Ukrainians, the overthrow of the democratically-elected Russophile government of Viktor Yanokovich and the chaos and violence surrounding his ouster led to both the opportunity to take advantage of a near-collapsed state as well as fears that the new government would be antithetical to their interests as a people who identified heavily with Russia.  Like Texans who likely viewed other revolutionary movements throughout Mexico as evidence justifying their cause, Eastern Ukrainians viewed celebrations of the ouster of Ukrainian authority in Crimea as an important inspiration.

2). Cultural “otherness” is important.  The Texans of the 1830s had, for the most part, once been Americans, and still identified with the language, dominant Protestant religion, symbols, and culture of their former homeland.  Although Mexican Tejanos fought alongside in roughly equal proportions with Anglos in Texas, the majority of Texans likely although considered themselves Americans first and foremost – and definitely not Mexican.

While Eastern Ukrainians were culturally much closer to other Ukrainians than Texans were to Mexicans, many speak Russian rather than Ukrainian, are associated with the Russian Orthodox rather than the Ukrainian Orthodox church, and, if they are older than 24, lived in the Russian-dominated Soviet Union.  The cultural divide in Ukraine was reflected in earlier elections that continually saw a population divided as much by separate identity as much as separate interests.

3). People in the homeland care about the struggles of their ethnic “kin,” even if their governments are reticent.  In the case of Texas revolution, the American government under Andrew Jackson was slow to act and never provided material support to the rebels.  Partly this was because events unfolded so quickly in Texas, and it is hard to say what would have happened had events drawn out longer.  Partly, however, it was because Jackson felt that it would have been “dishonorable” for the US to outright steal Texas from Mexico.

Nevertheless, across America, fundraising and volunteer drives were widespread and played a major role in providing the men and materials needed to field the various militias that took place in the Texas revolt.  While the government felt constrained by international norms, the people of the US acted out of emotional ties to their former friends and neighbors in Texas.

In eastern Ukraine, the amount of involvement by the Russian government is still unclear.  Just as Santa Anna accused the US government, rather than Texas settlers, as the main instigators of the Texas revolt, the Ukrainian government views Russia, rather than locals, as the main culprits in the Ukrainian war.  Nevertheless, the extent of Russian involvement will only be learned in years to come.

Undoubtedly, however, Russian citizens, by admission of the Russian government, have left Russia in significant numbers to go fight for the people of eastern Ukraine. It might be that the Russian government has offered significant covert support to rebels in Ukraine, but the alternative, that most of the Russians there lack official support, is also plausible.

4). Realpolitik matters.  The international stakes for the Western Hemisphere were high during the fight over Mexico, which dragged on as a semi- “frozen conflict” for nine more years after the Texans decisive battle as San Jacinto.   The US government was initially reticent to annex Texas, despite the pleas of Texans fearing for their continued independence, because it feared war with Mexico and even possibly Great Britain and (to a lesser degree) France.  Just as NATO allies today fear an expansionist Russia, Great Britain, in particular, understandably viewed an expansionist America as a threat.

In the end, however, the stakes for Great Britain were not high enough that it was willing to take a firm stance in favor of Mexico, especially without French support.  Ultimately, it was the US fears of Great Britain cozying up to Texas and using it as a strategic partner to undermine or even someday invade the United States that tipped the scales in favor of the US deciding to annex Texas.

For Russia, the salience of Ukraine is similar to that of Texas for the US after the Texans won independence.  Just as trade agreements between the Texas Republic and Great Britain were seen by many Americans as a first step toward an imagined future when British troops would be marching again on New Orleans or British abolitionism would breed a slave revolt in the American South, the visceral Russian reaction to closer trade ties between Ukraine and the EU, which ultimately started the whole recent chain-of-events, was a product of past historical strategic vulnerability and domestic feelings of insecurity.

While other parallels exist, in the interest of space, let’s move on to some crucial differences between early Texas and present-day Ukraine.

1). Russia has acted more aggressively and faster, than the US government of the 1830s.  While Secretary of State John Kerry accused Russia of acting in a “19th century fashion” in Ukraine, it was actually the US government of the 1830s that exercised more restraint.  Statements by Presidents Jackson and Van Buren indicated that they were keenly aware that the international community might not consider it acceptable if the US acted openly on Texas.  While Putin at first tried to conceal Russian involvement in Crimea, and may be doing so now in Eastern Ukraine, the Russian government has been more than willing to weather international criticism and sanctions in order to pursue their agendas in the region.

2). Russians are far less divided on the justness of their irredentism than Americans were.  Largely due to the divisive role of slavery in the United States, it took multiple votes and some legislative slight-of-hand to admit Texas to the union – and that by a mere two votes in the Senate.  Russians, on the other hand, voted 443 to 1 to admit Crimea to the Russian Federation and, according to a Russian opinion poll, 65 percent support Russian volunteers in Eastern Ukraine.

3). Western opposition to independence in Eastern Ukraine is much stronger than British and French opposition to Texas independence.  Modern day leaders and diplomats are less tolerant of any changes to borders than their 19th century counterparts, who were willing to offer recognition on a “de facto” basis.  Even potentially friendly regions like Somaliland, which has had its own functioning government for decades, are shunned.  Added to this is the affective dimension of Ukraine representing a David to the Russian goliath, and it’s pretty clear where the US and most other Western countries stand, if not necessarily the extent of their commitment to the Ukrainian government.

That leads us to the final part – if we’re to draw on the events of Texas as a guide, what should the US, and other Western countries do, and Ukraine do?

Probably the most important lesson from the Texas crisis of the 1830s and 1840s that might be drawn is that there is a whole lot more at stake than just the region in question.  Had Mexico been willing to part with a relatively smaller amount of territory and offered recognition to the new Texas Republic, they might have avoided a much greater catastrophe later on when the US annexed about half its land later in the wake of the Mexican War (a war ignited over a dispute concerning the new Texas border).

Likewise, the threat to Ukraine is not that it will have to part ways with just a relatively small part of its territory eastern territory.  The threat is that Ukraine will provide a justification to Russia to reclaim much more than just the currently disputed areas.  Although maybe not the most likely scenario, policymakers seem to be ignoring the threat of Russian revanchism in the rest of Ukraine in favor of a narrative that has the Russians, emboldened by their efforts in Ukraine, turning their attention to the Baltic countries.

The Baltic countries are NATO allies, however, and that security commitment is almost certainly clear and strong enough to discourage Russian involvement.  Ukraine, like Mexico of the 1830s and 1840s, however, has no clear alliance commitments, and is facing off with a rival that has clear military superiority.  The only sensible course of action is to try to entice the rebellious populations of the east with offers of greater autonomy and decentralization, and, failing that, offer recognition to the new states of the eastern Ukraine.  Guaranteeing their security would reduce the incentives that the new states would seek annexation with Russia and would enhance the security of the rest of Ukraine who could then get on with the business of working toward integration with the relatively peaceful and prosperous West.


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