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Rethink the News

Perspective matters.

Reducing news to hard lines and side-taking leaves a lot of the story untold. Progress comes from challenging what we hear and considering different views.

2017
October
20
Friday
Clayton Collins
Daily Edition Editor

The war on misinformation keeps spreading.

Three US senators, reacting to evidence that Russian-linked players were behind deceptive ads ahead of last year’s US presidential election, floated a bill Thursday aimed at forcing internet firms to tell the Federal Election Commission who’s bankrolling online ads. (Paid TV, radio, and print political advertisers have long been regulated.)

The same day, Pew Research Center released a survey that asked: “Will trusted methods emerge over the next 10 years to block false narratives and allow the most accurate information to prevail?”

Respondents were almost evenly split. Pessimists held a slight edge. They worried about those with a stake in maintaining the status quo, and saw divisions rising among those who care about the quality of information and those who don’t.

Optimists saw tech coming to the rescue, with innovations that could reduce “the potency and availability of misinformation.” They envisioned successful regulation, the rise of “trust ratings,” and a rise in information literacy.

That’s likely to require a grass-roots global push. Here’s one promising precursor: In some 8,000 Italian schools beginning Oct. 31, a public/private experiment aims to teach those weaned on social media how to sort fact from fiction online, The New York Times reports.

Said Laura Boldrini, a parliamentarian champion of the effort: “It’s only right to give these kids the possibility to defend themselves from lies.”

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Now to our five stories for your Friday, highlighting prudence, adaptibility, and connectedness in action. 

1. For GOP’s old guard, and others, signs of an ‘awakening’

One individual wields presidential power at any given time. But political players from both parties have strong feelings about what the presidency means. That has some heavyweights coming out to defend what they presume are shared values. 

 

The 30 Sec. ReadFormer President George W. Bush, former President Barack Obama, and former presidential candidate Sen. John McCain have a message for America: US voters need to reach out to each other instead of pushing each other, and the rest of the world, away. In essence, that’s the combined message of a series of extraordinary speeches given by these men this week. In some ways, the addresses – made at different times, in different forums – were implicit criticisms of President Trump and his blustery, divisive governing style. They talked about the dangers of half-baked nationalism and racial and economic divisions, for example. But they didn’t mention Mr. Trump by name. And they talked about global leadership, and America’s historic role in developing and championing democracy. “We know that when we lose sight of our ideals,” said Mr. Bush, “it is not democracy that has failed; it is the failure of those charged with preserving and protecting democracy.”

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1. For GOP’s old guard, and others, signs of an ‘awakening’

They were about President Trump. They were also about more than President Trump. Much more.

An extraordinary series of speeches this week from two former US Presidents and a former presidential candidate warned of the dangers to the nation and the world if divisive politics continues to cleave the American electorate into thoughtlessly hostile warring camps.

Former President George W. Bush talked about a rise in bigotry and casual cruelty. Former President Barack Obama observed that public life seems to be regressing from the 21st to the 19th century. Former presidential nominee Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona stressed the importance of an America engaged with the world and criticized “half-baked, spurious nationalism.”

None mentioned Mr. Trump’s name. To do so would have been both inflammatory and limiting. Their theme was not so much the content of Trump’s tweets as long-developing cracks in the American character. If the cracks are not to widen, voters may need to reach out to each other instead of push away.

“They ... talk about American ideals, they ... talk about the story of America, the American creed and the need to reinvigorate democracy and continue to be the exemplar to the world of democratic values,” says Martin Medhurst, a political scientist at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, specializing in rhetoric and communication.

Professor Medhurst in the above quote is referencing Mr. Bush and Senator McCain in particular. Bush spoke at a conference in New York convened by the George W. Bush Institute to support democracy. McCain appeared Monday at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia where he received the organization’s Liberty Medal.

But the words seem apropos for Obama was well. Obama on Thursday campaigned for Democratic gubernatorial candidates in New Jersey and Virginia. 

Moving beyond 'politics of division'

Obama’s speech was perhaps the most reserved of the three. He made mainly state-oriented political comments. At several moments, however, he referred with alarm to growing racial strife and economic inequality. 

“What we can’t have is the same old politics of division,” he said.

McCain spoke mostly about America’s role in the world, as he has many times before. As a committed internationalist he has long been a critic of the president’s stated “America First” policies.

 

Senator John McCain (R) of Arizona gives a thumbs up to the crowd before being awarded the 2017 Liberty Medal by former Vice President Joe Biden at Independence Hall in Philadelphia on Oct. 16.
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Charles Mostoller/Reuters

“To refuse the obligations of international leadership ... is as unpatriotic as an attachment to any other tired dogma,” he said.

Bush saw McCain and raised the ante, including wide, implicit criticism of the current president’s behavior.

“Bullying and prejudice in our public life sets a national tone, provides permission for cruelty and bigotry and compromises the moral education of children,” Bush said. He also spoke more broadly about stewardship of American values. “We know that when we lose sight of our ideals, it is not democracy that has failed; it is the failure of those charged with preserving and protecting democracy.” 

Unusual break with tradition

On the surface the language all three men used is mild. No direct insults or name-calling. But taken together, especially in the context of recent criticisms of Trump by Sen. Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee and other establishment figures, they represent a highly unusual break with American political tradition.

For Bush and McCain in particular to go against a president of their own party is unprecedented. That both men are not Trump fans is no surprise; that they continue to speak about what they perceive as drift in the party and the United States at large in a new president’s first term is stunning. It is yet another indication that they see Trump’s populism as a threat to change the very nature of the GOP.

“It just means that, increasingly, long-time leaders of the Republican Party are beginning to think that they have to speak out before the Republican Party drifts so far from its traditional moorings that it can’t find its way home,” says Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas.

Of course, Trump supporters think that GOP drifting off its old moorings isn’t exactly a bad thing. McCain has always been a different kind of Republican, says Robert Stovall, chair of the Bexar County, Texas, Republican Party. George W. Bush and 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney were another approach, representing the “nice way,” he says.

Trump, on the other hand, is a fighter, says Mr. Stovall.

“Donald Trump exudes what the silent majority – not only Republicans but middle Americans – have been looking for. Someone who’s going to stand up for this country and stand up for its beliefs,” says Stovall. 

Politics as usual, but unusual timing

In that context, will this week’s speeches from establishment figures have any effect? Or will they be a non-turning point, analogous to Mr. Romney’s March 2016 speech labeling Trump a “fraud.” Trump won the GOP nomination a few months thereafter.

And like virtually all politicians, the messengers in this case are not ideologically pure themselves. Bush is decrying racial politics at the same time he is campaigning in the Virginia gubernatorial race for former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie, who has been accused of racially tinged ads and rhetoric, points out Chris Edelson, an assistant professor of government in the School of Public Affairs at American University in Washington, D.C.

“It feels like a half-measure,” says Professor Edelson of Bush’s speech. “The time for half-measures is past.”

That said, it is still not normal that national leaders of the recent past have moved so quickly to effectively renounce actions of the current president, particularly in foreign policy. The path ahead is thus unknown, particularly for the ruling party.

“Relatively few people have broken with the Republican leadership ... but some have, and as you go forward every member is going to calculate whether or not standing with Trump and [former White House strategist Steve] Bannon is better for them than distancing themselves from that, and that calculation will differ district by district and state by state,” says Professor Jillson of SMU.

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2. With new posture, US aims to alter the dynamics in Afghanistan

Is forestalling defeat the same as victory? A more aggressive posture by the US delivers a new degree of optimism to allies on the ground. But the Taliban are undeterred and Afghans might not yet be positioned to capitalize.

US forces and Afghan commandos patrol Pandola village in the Achin district of Jalalabad, east of Kabul, Afghanistan, in April 2017.
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Rahmat Gul/AP
 

The 30 Sec. ReadWhen President Trump announced his new Afghanistan policy in late August, including a modest increase in US troop levels, his “fight and win” approach was warmly welcomed in Kabul as infusing a new sense of optimism. Mr. Trump’s more aggressive posture had already been felt in previous months. A substantial increase in US air attacks was credited with minimizing what had become annual Taliban territorial gains. The airstrikes had also led to a dramatic increase in the number of civilian casualties, which can translate into support for the insurgent Taliban, and Taliban officials have indicated they are not deterred. Critics say the new policy is unbalanced, weighted heavily to military, as opposed to civilian, measures, which the critics say are vital to the Kabul government expanding its control. Trump himself said, “We are not nation-building again. We are killing terrorists.” The question for Afghanistan is, can its military, even with an influx of new weapons, capitalize on the new optimism to at least force a stalemate with the Taliban? Experience has shown that is difficult to do with air power alone.

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2. With new posture, US aims to alter the dynamics in Afghanistan

In the Afghanistan war’s 2015 and 2016 fighting seasons, Taliban insurgents made significant gains. They captured the provincial capital of Kunduz in 2015, before losing it again, and briefly took partial control of the city in 2016. All the while they seized an increasing number of district centers. 

The systematic Taliban advances also threatened a number of other provincial capitals, as their reach extended across one-third of Afghanistan, a setback for American aims in the longest war in United States history.

But the 2017 fighting season has been different, analysts say: No provincial capitals have fallen, and strategic Taliban gains have been limited, largely due to a surge in air strikes initiated soon after the Trump administration took office in January.

“The Taliban definitely registered that something has changed, and had a bit of a reset,” says a Western official in Kabul.

The US “brought back the B-52s with a vengeance,” says the official, who is not authorized to speak to the media and asked not to be named. “You don’t need B-52s if you’re making little love-taps with Hellfire missiles, you need B-52s if you are dropping cataclysmic-sized bombs. And we haven’t done that since 2001 and 2002, so that’s a big change.”

The increase in airstrikes to the highest level since 2010 – along with a dramatic rise in civilian casualties, which has for years helped bolster Taliban ranks – has been augmented by a new US strategy of “fight and win” articulated by President Trump in late August.

Declaring that the new aim was “victory,” Mr. Trump raised overall US troop levels to 15,000, and eschewed setting a deadline for withdrawal, as former President Barack Obama once did.

“America’s enemies must never know our plans or believe they can wait us out. I will not say when we are going to attack, but attack we will,” Trump said. “We are not nation-building again. We are killing terrorists.”

President Trump speaks at Fort Myer in Arlington Va., Aug. 21 about a strategy he believes will best position the US to eventually declare victory in Afghanistan.
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Carolyn Kaster/AP

Nevertheless, the fighting this year has still been bloody, since the Taliban kicked off their spring offensive spectacularly in April against one of the most secure Afghan Army bases in northern Afghanistan. Insurgents disguised as soldiers took the lives of up to 250 recruits.

And the Taliban killing has continued: On Tuesday, a wave of suicide attacks against police and government targets in the south, east, and west of the country killed at least 74 and wounded many more.

On Thursday, the Taliban took out 43 Afghan soldiers and destroyed their military camp in southern Kandahar Province; in the north, a Taliban ambush claimed the lives of six policemen.

And the Taliban today still control more territory than at any point since they were ousted by the US in 2001. Official US reports indicate that in the first two quarters of 2017, government control “stabilized” at 59.7 percent of Afghanistan territory.

“It is true, the ice [of Kabul government control over Afghan territory] is melting, [but] is the rate of melt slowing? Are we going to end up with what glaciologists call ‘calving events,’ where a chunk falls?” asks the Western official.

“So you end up with less and less control under government territory, but with no major disasters, [which] allows the government to avoid a political inflection point,” he says. “No major chunks of ice are sliding into the sea.”

Can Kabul capitalize?

It is not yet clear how sustainable the effects of the ramped-up airstrikes may be, or whether the government could stop the momentum toward defeat if the Taliban were to seize two or three provincial capitals, says the official.

Also unclear is whether the embattled Afghan government and security forces can take advantage of the current dynamic to solidify a stalemate, much less gain the upper hand in the 16-year-war that saw a record toll of 6,800 Afghan soldiers killed last year.

Meanwhile, the modest increase announced by Trump of some 3,900 US troops is controversial, because even when more than 100,000 troops were on the ground in 2010 and 2011, as part of a surge ordered by Mr. Obama, they were unable to deliver a decisive blow against the Taliban.

But analysts in Kabul say the new US policy has nevertheless been a psychological boost for the beleaguered and divided Afghan government and its security forces.

“The number of US troops has a placebo effect, because it gives the central government the bank guarantees, if you will, that the international forces and political powers are behind us,” says Masood Karokhail, director of The Liaison Office, a Kabul-based organization that facilitates peace and reconstruction efforts.

“Remember Obama said, ‘We can’t defeat the Taliban,’ and now suddenly Trump’s new strategy is, ‘We are going to destroy the Taliban,’” says Mr. Karokhail. “There’s a shift in gear.… [Before] you saw a lot of fatigue and less money, resources. This hasn’t changed. But still there is a new adrenaline I see that [says], ‘No, we have to win here.’ Trump’s strategy was quite well received.”

Plan light on non-military goals

While the new US strategy has been welcomed by many in Kabul, after years of bad news, Western draw-down, and Taliban advances, it is also heavy on kinetic, war-fighting aspects, and light on critical non-military steps the government has long struggled to achieve.

“The psychological impact is always being pushed, [but] I don’t think the strategy itself is particularly comprehensive nor a game-changer,” says Emily Winterbotham, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) think tank in London.

“It focuses far more on the counter-terrorism perspective,” says Ms. Winterbotham, who served as political adviser to the EU Special Representative in Afghanistan from 2012 to 2015.

“They key issue in Afghanistan is that the government is either non-existent in large parts of the country, or illegitimate in the eyes of quite a significant number of the population,” she says. “Until you tackle that lack of legitimacy and credibility, you are always going to have an insurgency, irrespective of what the US is doing.”

The vanguard of the US effort has been the stepped-up bombing campaign, which saw 751 bombs dropped by the US Air Force in September compared with 503 in August, a 50 percent increase, according to US military statistics tabulated by Reuters.

The United Nations has meanwhile reported a 67 percent increase in civilian deaths from US airstrikes in the first half of 2017, compared with the first six months of 2016.

Boost to Afghan air power

The Pentagon calls the new Trump-era Afghanistan strategy R4+S, an acronym that stands for “regionalize, realign, reinforce, reconcile and sustain.” Describing it in testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee Oct. 3, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis said “realign” meant that the fighting “will continue to be carried out by our Afghan partners, but our advisers will accompany tactical units to advise and bring NATO fire support to bear when needed.”

The old mindset of “survival,” says Karokhail in Kabul, has been replaced by a “new mindset” that is more aggressive.

To achieve the level of military competence envisioned by the Pentagon, Afghanistan will require better equipment, at the very least.

US and Afghan officials have already embarked on a plan to modernize Afghanistan’s decrepit Soviet-era air assets. The plan calls for tripling Afghan air force capacity in a $6.5-billion, five-year program that includes 159 new Black Hawk helicopters, and doubling the size of special operations units. Funding for the first year of the program had already been allocated, but will require the Trump administration’s authorization each additional year.

In an elaborate handover of the first Black Hawk helicopters at Kandahar airfield this month, the top US commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John Nicholson, vowed that “a tidal wave of air power is on the horizon” that would spell “the beginning of the end for the Taliban.”

Such optimism has also been the hallmark of previous would-be victors in Afghanistan, from the British to the Soviet Union, which both saw their entanglements famously earn Afghanistan the moniker “graveyard of empires.”

A Taliban vow to fight

Even as Trump warned in August that “no place is beyond the reach of American might and American arms,” the Taliban responded by vowing to continue the fight as long as a “single American soldier” remains in Afghanistan.

“It seems America is not yet ready to end the longest war in its history,” the Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, said in a statement. “As Trump stated, ‘Americans are weary of the long war in Afghanistan.’ We shall cast further worry onto them and force American officials to accept realities.”

Still, the commander of Afghanistan’s counter-terrorism force that engages the Taliban and Islamic State militants often in Kabul, says the extended US presence is welcome.

“The Americans should be here, it is necessary,” says Lt. Col. Abdul Raqib Mubariz, commander of the Crisis Response Unit, two days after a late-September attack in which rockets targeted the Kabul airport – and reportedly the recently departed plane of Secretary Mattis – and his squad fought a seven-hour gun battle.

A veteran of 85 Taliban and Islamic State attacks in the last eight years, Lt. Col. Mubariz tells the story of the fight with military efficiency, but says there is much work for Afghan security forces to do.

“There is an urgent necessity for coalition troops, especially Americans,” says Mubariz. “Our army needs them to train the young generation. Only the young generation can stand this country on its own legs.”

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that the Taliban did not seize complete control of Kunduz in 2016.

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3. Patterns in global growth: the hidden economic story

Pulling economic levers may seem less important in boom times than it does when red lights are flashing. But not taking advantage of stability to enact policies that support new growth may represent a dangerous complacency. 

 

The 30 Sec. ReadSomething pretty rare is happening in the global economy: positive growth, almost everywhere. The synchronized upturn now even extends to troubled Russia and Brazil. The trend means more people with jobs and fewer in poverty. In India, the rate of extreme poverty has fallen from 50 percent in 1994 to less than 20 percent. In Vietnam, it’s down to less than 3 percent. Momentum is also broadening, with global growth fueled increasingly by emerging-market nations. But the good news comes with caveats. A key one is that the pace of expansion is tepid in advanced economies from the United States and Japan to Europe. By next year, those nations will account for just two-fifths of the world’s total economic output, down from three-fifths in the era prior to the Great Recession. Even with the Dow Jones industrial average passing 23000 for the first time, a question for developed nations is how to avoid a low-growth future. Rob Atkinson, an economist and expert on innovation, says, “We have gotten complacent when it comes to competitiveness.”

SOURCE: International Monetary Fund
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Karen Norris/Staff
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3. Patterns in global growth: the hidden economic story

In a coincidence that some might call Halloween-eerie, Wall Street reached two milestones this week:

• On Wednesday, the widely watched Dow Jones Industrial Average surpassed 23,000 points for the first time, the third-fastest rise of 1,000 points amid the second-longest bull run in its history.

• On Thursday, US investors marked the 30-year anniversary of the worst one-day collapse in the Dow’s history, when the stock market in a single session lost more than a quarter of its value.

Market analysts used the second milestone as a warning to investors enthralled with the first. Don’t get so self-assured about the good times, they warned, that you don’t prepare for the bad times. Only twice before have US stock valuations been higher in relation to their earnings: in 1929, right before the market crash, and 2000, right before the popping of the dot-com bubble.

But the call for alertness might apply not just to investors but also to developed nations, especially the United States.

At the moment, things look sunny. Underlying Wall Street’s frothy records is a global economic boom that is remarkably synchronized. Almost everywhere in the world – even in economic basket cases such as Brazil and Russia – growth is picking up. Inflation is tame in most places, allowing central banks to keep interest rates low. Economic crises are relatively few.

But unlike the long boom before the Great Recession, most of that growth is happening not in the developed world but in emerging markets.

“We have gotten complacent when it comes to competitiveness,” says Rob Atkinson, president of the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation (ITIF), a Washington think tank.

Growth in US workplace productivity, a key enabler of rising wages and living standards, is rising only slowly by official measures. The progress in emerging markets isn’t being matched by much oomph in America, Europe, or Japan.

“The pendulum of world economic growth has swung dramatically from the so-called advanced countries to the emerging and developing economies,” Stephen Roach, senior fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute of Global Affairs, wrote in May. “New? Absolutely. Normal? Not even close. It is a stunning development.”

From 1980 to 2007, the United States and other advanced economies represented 59 percent of the world’s economic pie (output, adjusted for the purchasing power parity of currencies) while the emerging markets owned the other 41 percent, he points out. By next year, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) forecasts that those shares will have reversed: 41 percent for the developed world, 59 percent for the emerging markets.

 

Indians buy dry fruits from a roadside vendor at a market in New Delhi. In recent years India has made major strides in reducing extreme poverty.
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Altaf Qadri/AP

This shift has had enormous economic consequences in many nations that have adopted pro-growth policies. In India, high growth has cut the rate of extreme poverty from 50 percent in 1994 to less than 20 percent today. In Vietnam, the rate has fallen from 64 percent to less than 3 percent during a similar period.

Income inequality is growing for populations within many nations, yet it is falling meaningfully on a global scale.  

And this shift is taking place even though the growth of foreign trade has slowed by more than half since the 1999-2008 period, according to the IMF.

While developed nations are growing slowly, emerging nations are finding ways to grow faster in ways other than simply boosting exports. Their outperformance is expected to continue.

The IMF forecasts emerging markets will grow 4.6 percent this year and reach about 5 percent over the medium term. Growth for the developed economies is forecast at less than half that.

“Near-term risks are broadly balanced,” the IMF’s steering committee said on Saturday, “but there is no room for complacency.”

The idea keeps popping up.

“The upturn is promising, but there is no room for complacency,” Catherine Mann, chief economist of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), said a month earlier.

What these economists mean by complacency is nations’ potential failure to take advantage of the good times to enact policies to support stronger growth and financial stability.

Take tax reform. This summer India passed what is being billed as its biggest tax change ever, replacing its provincial taxes with a single national one. The change is so disruptive that the OECD has downgraded its growth forecast for India this year, although the new tax structure should boost the nation’s investment and productivity in the long run.

Even Britain, one of the few nations whose growth is expected to slow next year, has lowered its corporate tax rate and expanded tax credits for research and development.

In the US, by contrast, broad tax reform looks uncertain as the Trump administration and the Republican Congress have so far failed to find consensus on what reform would look like. And with Republicans talking about tax cuts that are financed by adding to the nation's debt, economists worry that even a legislative success may not improve the nation's economic health.

Mr. Atkinson worries, moreover, that the US is ignoring deeper fundamentals of growth. In the 1980s, scared by the gains by Japan and Germany, the US got behind legislative and public and private efforts to boost productivity. Now, America’s slow productivity growth is virtually ignored by the press, he says.

Some observers say it’s not just a challenge for policymakers and deep-pocketed financiers.

“These days Americans are less likely to switch jobs, less likely to move around the country, and, on a given day, less likely to outside the house at all,” writes Tyler Cowen, an economist at George Mason University and author of the 2017 book, “The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream.” Decisions to preserve our status quo “have made us more risk averse and more set in our ways, more segregated, and they have sapped us of the pioneer spirit that made America the world’s most productive and innovative economy.”

Other economists agree, pointing to a “new normal,” where, despite the optimism on Wall Street, the US is poised to enter a period of slow growth and slowing innovation.

But innovation and its economic impact are notoriously hard to predict. The personal computer revolution, for example, launched in the 1980s but didn’t boost US productivity until 1995. In a report last year, Accenture forecast that the integration of artificial intelligence and related technologies could double the annual economic growth rates of developed nations by 2035.

Of the 12 countries it looked at, the global services company found that a leading beneficiary would be the US, which would see annual growth jump from 2.6 percent to 4.6 percent per year thanks to the new technology.

“We are between those waves” of technological impact, says Mr. Atkinson of the ITIF. “Self-driving cars, robotics, AI [artificial intelligence] … maybe 2025, 2030, you will see these things really begin to have bite.”

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4. Can a church get political and keep its tax status? Courts weigh in.

Every institution works within the set of constraints and advantages it is granted under the law. Today, a changing religious landscape has more people questioning the parameters that churches have long taken for granted. 

 

The 30 Sec. ReadThis month, a federal judge in Wisconsin ruled that tax-free housing for clergy is unconstitutional. Also this month, in Texas a federal judge ruled that the governor infringed on an atheist group's constitutional rights when he removed its "winter solstice" nativity. Dan Barker is the former evangelical minister behind both cases. He didn’t stop believing all at once, but over the years Mr. Barker experienced what can only be called a dramatic conversion. Now Barker and his wife are on the vanguard of the so-called culture wars, in particular the push and pull in the legal battles that draw the lines between church and state. And the legal push and pull has become more volatile over the past few years. In some ways, the Supreme Court’s epoch-changing 2015 decision making same-sex marriage a constitutional right has again galvanized religious conservatives to work to strengthen the nation’s robust traditions of religious freedom – and even carve out new spaces for conscience, especially for those with religious objections to same-sex marriage. At the same time, the religious landscape has begun to shift profoundly. “There is a trend in the United States toward challenging the privileges that churches and other religious groups have enjoyed throughout the nation’s history,” says law professor Lloyd Hitoshi Mayer.

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4. Can a church get political and keep its tax status? Courts weigh in.

When Dan Barker was a Pentecostal minister in California, he knew he could exclude his clergy housing allowance from his income tax returns, taking advantage of an IRS benefit that the federal government grants to “ministers of the Gospel” – though not to anyone else.

Back then, he didn’t give much thought to this special social benefit, which today gives American ministers a tax break worth some $800 million a year. Today, his efforts stand behind the ruling of a federal judge in Wisconsin who declared this benefit a violation of the separation of church and state.

In the 1970s, Mr. Barker was never that concerned about the nitty gritty of social policy. And he felt many of his fellow religious conservatives, who were getting involved in the emerging “religious right,” were too caught up with worldly concerns.

“I was a pure soul-winner,” Mr. Barker says. “I never preached about homosexuality or abortion or birth control or race or anything relevant to the so-called culture wars.”

By age 16, he was working for the televangelist Kathryn Kuhlman – a forerunner of what today is known as “the prosperity gospel.”

“I was the true believer, a Bible-believing fundamentalist,” says Barker, who went on to be an evangelist himself for nearly 20 years, both as a Christian musician and preacher. “I was a person praying for miracles and faith healings – all of that,” he says. “I believed it.”

He didn’t stop believing all at once, but over the years Barker experienced what can only be called a dramatic conversion.

It was as if he had been born again, his life turned inside out. He married a third-generation atheist activist, Annie Laurie Gaylor, eventually joining her as the co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation in Madison, Wis.

Now Barker and his wife are on the vanguard of the so-called culture wars, in particular the push and pull in the legal battles that draw the lines between church and state, and as caught up with worldly concerns as his former Evangelical peers.

And the legal push and pull has become more volatile over the past few years. In some ways, the Supreme Court’s epoch-changing 2015 decision making same-sex marriage a constitutional right has galvanized religious conservatives to work to strengthen the country’s robust traditions of religious freedom – and even carve out new spaces for conscience, especially for those with religious objections to same-sex marriage.

Members of the clergy arrive for the annual Red Mass for Supreme Court justices, judges, and government officials, at Cathedral of St. Matthew in Washington on Oct. 1.
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Mike Theiler/Reuters

At the same time, the religious landscape has begun to shift profoundly. Like Barker, millions of Americans have left their faiths. Unlike Barker, many still believe in God, but they have become “nones,” or those who no longer identify with, or trust, religious institutions.

Even among Evangelicals, declining membership has revealed a growing split between young Christians and church elders, as Millennials more and more reject their churches’ conservative activism and opposition to same-sex marriage.  

“There is a trend in the United States toward challenging the privileges that churches and other religious groups have enjoyed throughout the nation’s history,” says Lloyd Hitoshi Mayer, professor of law at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind.  

A growing number of people have continued to question the reasoning behind various kinds of tax benefits religious groups have long received. In 2015, HBO’s “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” did a popular exposé, “Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption,” on how certain wealthy televangelists purchase palatial houses and private jets for their ministries, all with the tax-free contributions they receive.

And a number of contentious church-state issues surrounding the issue of taxes loom: tax breaks for school choice and voucher programs that in effect subsidize religious institutions; taxpayer funds for hurricane relief efforts; and the future of the Johnson Amendment, which forbids tax-exempt religious organizations from participating in political campaigns.  

In Wisconsin, US District Court Barbara Crabb ruled that the IRS’s “parsonage allowance,” which allows “ministers of the Gospel” to exclude mortgage payments, utility bills, and other housing-related expenses, was a violation of the First Amendment’s establishment clause, essentially respecting religion over other groups.

“A desire to alleviate financial hardship on taxpayers is a legitimate purpose, but it is not a secular purpose when Congress eliminates the burden for a group made up of solely religious employees but maintains it for nearly everyone else,” Judge Crabb wrote. “The important point is that many equally deserving secular employees (as well as other kinds of religious employees) could benefit from the exemption as well, but they must satisfy much more demanding requirements despite the lack of justification for the difference in treatment.”

Still, nonprofit organizations, including educational, scientific, and charitable groups, have long been recognized as serving a special function in society.

The Supreme Court in 1970 strongly affirmed the broader tax-free status of churches, saying “certain entities that exist in a harmonious relationship to the community at large, and that foster its ‘moral or mental improvement,’ should not be inhibited in their activities by property taxation or the hazard of loss of those properties for nonpayment of taxes.” Churches are “beneficial and stabilizing influences” on a community’s common life together and within the public interest.

This has long been a powerful principle in American society, both as a matter of jurisprudence and social policy, says Professor Mayer. “The view is that it is good to have religious organizations of all stripes in our communities, that they make better people, a better society.”

“Of course, they provide not just lots of good things that you can measure, like soup kitchens and homeless shelters,” he continues. “I think that if you just focus on those tangible benefits, which secular groups do as well, you’re missing something important about how Americans view religious groups, which is, they are more than people who help the poor. They also help everyone to be better, to be better neighbors, to be better community members, and we want to encourage that.”

And part of the purpose of the “free exercise” clause in the First Amendment, many scholars say, is to create a special and unique place for religion in American life with limited entanglements with the government.

“And we don’t have any more entangling relationship than the relationship between the taxpayer and the tax collector,” says Edward Zelinsky, a professor at the Cardozo School of Law in New York and the author of the recent book, “Taxing the Church: Religion, Exemptions, Entanglement, and the Constitution.” “So if the government taxes a church, that doesn’t separate them, it entangles them.”

But many have, in fact, begun to question whether religious groups do indeed exist in a “harmonious relationship” within the community, especially as many conservative churches become more aggressively partisan.

For the past few years, religious conservatives have mounted an assault on the IRS’s Johnson Amendment. For the past decade, The Alliance Defending Freedom has sponsored “Pulpit Freedom Sundays,” a kind of civil disobedience in which pastors openly support political candidates from the pulpit, daring the IRS to revoke their tax-exempt status.

“As a pastor, you should be free to teach as God leads, without interference from the government,” the organization says on its website. “But for more than 60 years, the IRS has used the Johnson Amendment to censor what you and other pastors preach from the pulpit.”

In fact, the IRS rarely revokes the tax-exempt status of religious organizations engaging in political advocacy. And despite a recent executive action by President Trump, who had promised to “totally destroy” the amendment, both critics and supporters say it basically maintains the status quo.  

Yet the efforts to repeal the Johnson Amendment also disrupt what had been a kind of social compact between society and nonprofits. “Essentially, it allows organizations a ‘double subsidy’ as both the financial donor can exempt their donation from their personal tax obligation, and the recipient nonprofit is also not taxed on the gift,” says Justin Dion, professor at Western New England University School of Law in Springfield, Mass.

So the IRS policy serves a useful purpose, says Professor Zelinsky,

“We really don’t want churches and other tax-exempt institutions being used to funnel tax exempt money into politics, he says. “On the other hand, I think the ministers who argue that the Johnson Amendment unfairly inhibits their internal communications and their First Amendment rights are correct.”

But Zelinsky and others believe the ongoing disputes about breaks for religious organizations have been afflicted by the country’s miasma of polarized partisanship, which masks opportunities for real consensus.

The debate over school choice programs, for example, may already be resolved, says Mark Goldfeder, a lecturer at Emory Law School in Atlanta and a senior fellow for the Center for the Study of Law and Religion. Instead of focusing on the distinctions between secular or religious purposes, the arguments have shifted to public versus private funding.

There are already 17 US states that have instituted versions of “scholarship tax credit programs,” which allow individuals and corporations to set aside a portion of the state taxes they owe and donate them to nonprofit organizations that issue scholarships to grade school and high school students.

“It’s interesting in the overall scheme of things, because what these programs do, they take religion out of it,” says Mr. Goldfederer, who notes that such programs have already passed constitutional muster. “So we’re no longer focusing on the religious-secular distinction, which is fraught with all kinds of issues.”

In the recent Trinity Lutheran case, the Supreme Court ruled 7-to-2 that governments could not exclude religious organizations from any taxpayer-funded grants, offered to any other organization, so long as the grant served a secular purpose.

In Congress, lawmakers have introduced a “fix” to the Johnson Amendment, allowing pastors to exercise their free speech, but limiting the amount of money that could be used when supporting political candidates.

Although Barker calls the Freedom From Religion Foundation “strict separationists,” he offers a more nuanced view on issues such as nativity scenes in front of government buildings or in public places like town squares.

“In a public forum, you get a permit to display a nativity scene, you get a permit to have a rally,” the atheist activist says. “And when you’re done, you take it down, you leave. Everyone knows it’s not the government speaking, it’s ‘we the people,’ and that’s great.”

Barker sued Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott two years ago after he ordered the atheist group’s nativity parody removed from the state Capitol. The “winter solstice” featured cardboard cutouts of the founding fathers and the Statue of Liberty gazing down at the Bill of Rights, lying in a manger.

Earlier this month, a federal judge ruled the Texas governor’s action “violated [the Freedom From Religion Foundation's] clearly established First Amendment right to be free from viewpoint discrimination in a limited public forum.”

“We’d rather keep divisive religious – and irreligious – views out of state capitols,” said Ms. Gaylor in a statement. “But if the government creates public forums, and permits Christian nativities in them, there must be room at the inn for the rest of us.”

Both Gaylor and Barker changed their compensation packages to reflect a housing allowance as they prepared to challenge the IRS housing allowance, after the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals threw out an earlier ruling saying they didn't have standing to sue.

“If all of the leaders and CEOs of nonprofits, if all of us were getting the same break, then we wouldn’t complain, because there wouldn’t be any favoritism,” Barker says. “I used to get it when I was a minister, but now that I’m working for FFRF, I don’t get it anymore, so the government is picking favorites and giving the benefit to one group, as if the clergy were somehow on a higher level or special class of citizens from the rest of us. So it’s a matter of fairness.”

“But I think this American experiment is beautiful,” Barker says. “We were the first country in history to formally separate religion and government, and it’s been working, and it’s been working wonderfully, even if there are people who resist that idea.”

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On Film

5. In documentary ‘Jane,’ an unflinching picture of a vivid life

Primatologist Jane Goodall’s sense of community transcended species. A new biopic explores her sometimes complicated life of connectedness. 

Jane Goodall and infant chimpanzee Flint reached out to touch each other's hands at Gombe in Tanzania. Flint was the first infant born at Gombe after Jane arrived. With him she had a great opportunity to study chimp development – and to have physical contact, which is no longer considered appropriate with chimps in the wild.
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Hugo van Lawick/National Geographic Creative
 

The 30 Sec. Read“I was an intruder, and a strange one at that.” That acknowledgment by Jane Goodall, the British primatologist, sets the tone for Brett Morgen’s documentary “Jane.” The remarkable film is rooted in the 2014 discovery of more than 140 hours of previously unseen 16-millimeter footage from the 1960s, shot mostly by her then-husband, Hugo van Lawick, under the auspices of National Geographic. It shows Goodall almost from the beginning of her explorations, at first observing from afar, with binoculars, a chimpanzee community. We are so used to seeing reenactments in documentaries of this sort that to see the real thing is both unnerving and exhilarating. It’s also unflinching. Goodall makes clear that, after her beloved chimpanzee community degenerated into intertribal warfare, she had to reevaluate her preconceptions. Who could have predicted that the lanky 26-year-old that we first see in “Jane” would end up spearheading the world’s longest continuous study of chimpanzees? As this film demonstrates, Jane Goodall herself could have done so.

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5. In documentary ‘Jane,’ an unflinching picture of a vivid life

Jane Goodall, the great English primatologist who has spent much of her life studying chimpanzees in their natural habitat, grew up as a girl wishing she could be “as close to animals as I could.” She says she “dreamt as a boy,” and, lo and behold, not long after she began her research in 1960 in Tanzania under the mentorship of the Kenyan-born paleontologist Louis Leakey, she discovered that “I was actually living my dream.” 

Brett Morgen’s documentary “Jane” brings Goodall’s ineffable and incredible story to vivid life, starting with the aforementioned anecdotes as, now in her 80s and still seraphically beautiful, she recalls with an almost ethereal calm the extraordinariness of her days.

The film’s main reason for being was the 2014 discovery of a trove of more than 140 hours of previously unseen 16-millimeter footage from the 1960s, filmed mostly by her then-husband Hugo van Lawick under the auspices of National Geographic. We see Goodall almost from the beginning of her explorations – at first observing from afar, with binoculars, a chimpanzee community – and it’s as if we have stepped into a time machine. We are so used to seeing reenactments in documentaries of this sort that to see the real thing is both unnerving and exhilarating. We are up close and personal not only with Goodall but with the chimpanzees themselves, as they gradually learn to accept her presence in the wild. 

“I was an intruder, and a strange one at that,” she says. “A strange white ape.” At first, because the chimpanzees were so standoffish with her, she felt that “I wasn’t really learning anything much.” Leakey, who was not part of her expedition on the ground, had hired her despite – or more likely, because of – her lack of academic credentials. She was 26 and too poor to attend a university, but she possessed Leakey’s prime prerequisites: “an open mind, a passion for knowledge, patience, and a love of animals.” (It was her mother, who initially accompanied her and for a time served as a nurse in the Tanzanian community, who inspired her surplus of self-esteem.)

Goodall’s big breakthrough came when she observed the senior male of the tribe – David Greybeard, she dubbed him – fashioning a twig to use as a tool for rooting out termites. Until then, it was assumed that toolmaking was exclusive to man. Her finding was at first disparaged by the almost exclusively male scientific community as nothing more than feminine wish fulfillment. Gradually, though, her findings were accepted. And, of course, it’s doubly wonderful in this film to see David Greybeard actually poking his twig into the ground and nibbling termites. Seeing is believing.

Leakey’s mission, as carried out by Goodall, was to chart the linkages between the great apes and early hominids, and some of the most moving sequences in the film depict Goodall’s wonderment at the evolutionary connectedness of ape and human. She talks about how she observed up close a giant chimpanzee and “saw a thinking, reasoning personality looking back.” When she and Van Lawick, living in Tanzania, have a child, whom they nickname “Grub,” her passage into motherhood is mysteriously enhanced by her intimate observations of Flo, the chimpanzee’s senior female, and her baby male. 

But lest you think Goodall is some wide-eyed innocent, she makes it clear that, especially after her beloved chimpanzee community degenerated into bloody intertribal warfare, she could no longer sanction her pastoral preconceptions. 

She had earlier remarked that “the more I learned, the more I realized that [the chimpanzees] were like us in so many ways.” She had to come to terms with the fact that she “had no idea of the brutality that they could show.” This, too, is what links us with the apes, and there’s an undercurrent of sorrow in her admission.

But she remains a champion of African apes through the Jane Goodall Institute as she battles their decimation through hunting and trapping. Who could have predicted that the gawky, lanky 26-year-old woman that we first see in “Jane” would end up spearheading the world’s longest continuous study of chimpanzees? 

Well, as this film demonstrates, Jane Goodall herself could have predicted it. Grade: A (This movie is not rated.)

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The Monitor's View

Amazon’s big competition could deliver for many cities

 

The 30 Sec. ReadMetropolitan areas all over North America have scrambled to put their best offers on the table in hopes of luring Amazon’s second headquarters – its “HQ2.” Amazon, based in Seattle, has set out a few prerequisites for bidders. The company has also noted that economic incentives could become a tiebreaker in choosing among the top contenders. That’s brought some soul-searching among city officials: How sweet do we make our offer without the giveaways exceeding the benefits? The effort may also have encouraged deeper introspection. What is great about our city or region? What plans are we making to ensure that our city will be vital and livable in the future? The competition’s winner won’t be known for some time. But the thought that all these cities have put into their efforts needn’t be wasted. These ideas can be put to use making improvements that will attract other businesses and boost the quality of life for residents. If that becomes the case, the Amazon competition will have many winners.

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Amazon’s big competition could deliver for many cities

It’s being compared to bidding for the Olympic Games.

The online retailing giant Amazon set Oct. 19 as the deadline for applications from cities wishing to host the company’s second headquarters, its “HQ2,” as the company is calling it.

The prize for the winning city indeed will be golden: 50,000 new jobs with an average wage of $100,000, Amazon says.

In response, metropolitan areas all over North America have scrambled to put their best offers on the table.

Amazon, based in Seattle, has set out a few prerequisites for bidders: The metro population should be more than 1 million, the airport should have direct flights to key US and international cities, and the mass transit system should be top-notch. Great public amenities, top universities, a reasonable cost of living, and a highly educated workforce will be valued, too.

Amazon has also noted that economic incentives, such as tax breaks, could become a tiebreaker in choosing among the top contenders.

That’s brought some soul-searching among city officials: How sweet do we make our offer without the giveaways exceeding the benefits?

As Amazon’s building boom and expansion to 40,000 employees have taken hold in Seattle, home prices and traffic congestion have soared. Low- and moderate-income residents have been squeezed out. Not everyone is thrilled to be living in the country’s largest company town.

San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg decided earlier this month that his city wouldn’t join in the Amazon bidding war. “We’re just not going to mortgage our future to do it,” he said.

The highest bidder is not guaranteed to win the prize. A city that plays a little harder to get may show a kind of self-confident attractiveness that says “you want to be with me.” In Minnesota, for example, a bid to base HQ2 in the Twin Cities relies on the attractive lifestyle workers will find there – which already has resulted in 17 Fortune 500 companies being headquartered in the state – and is offering very little in the way of financial incentives.

Getting caught up in an irrational bidding war probably isn’t a smart strategy. (See "Amazon’s 50,000 new jobs? Why some cities don’t play tax-break game.") But the effort that dozens of cities have made to put together a bid can be a positive thing. Creating an effective proposal meant bringing together local government, businesses, and civic groups that must set aside differences for the common good.

The effort may have also encouraged a little introspection. What is great about our city or region? Why would someone want to live and work here? What plans are we making to ensure that our city will be even more vital and livable in the future?

In Detroit, nearly 100 consultants volunteered time to help shape the Motor City’s bid. “I’ve never seen a community come together like that,” one local top executive told Axios. The city partnered with Windsor, Ontario, across the Detroit River, to make a joint proposal that touts the advantages both the United States and Canada have to offer.

The competition’s lone winner won’t be known for some time. But the thought that all these cities have put into their efforts needn’t be wasted. These ideas can be put to use making improvements that will attract other businesses and boost the quality of life for residents.

If that becomes the case, the Amazon competition will have many winners, not just one.

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A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

Something we can all do to defuse violence

 

Lessening violence in our communities can be a matter of a God-inspired thought. For an inmate at a Pennsylvania penitentiary, it was a powerful thought that inspired him not to kill another inmate in the jail. The thought was that he was truly created by God and that meant he was naturally inclined to love his neighbor. Understanding that he was a child of God inspired him to think of the other inmate that way, too. Such thinking can be an inspiration for all of us seeking healing in our communities.

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Something we can all do to defuse violence

What stopped Marcus from killing someone was learning that he was a child of God.

Marcus (not his real name) was an inmate in a Pennsylvania jail when my friend Dave met him. Dave was there as a representative of the local Church of Christ, Scientist, to give a ministerial talk. The crux of what he told them dealt with gaining a better understanding of man’s true existence as a creation of the Divine, naturally inclined to love one’s neighbor as one’s self, as the Bible often states (see for example Leviticus 19:18 and Galatians 5:14).

Dave told me: “After my talk, Marcus, a great big guy, came up to me and said, ‘Man, you really messed me up. You were talking about what it means to be a child of God. That’s who I really am.’ Then he said, ‘I want to tell you, before this talk, they brought a guy into the jail, and he and I have had this thing going on out on the street back and forth, and I said to myself, I’m going to kill him. Today’s the day. I don’t care what happens to me, we’re going to end this thing, right here, right now.’ ”

All Dave could do was keep listening.

“He said, ‘And then, for some reason, I decided to come hear this stupid talk. And now I’ve got to go back to my cell, and I’ve got to think about myself as a child of God and what that means, and I’ve got to think about him that way too, don’t I?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, you do.’ By this time, tears were streaming down his face. He gave me a big bear hug and said, ‘Thanks for messing me up, man.’ ”

Would that more people could be “messed up” like this, open to the transformative influence of the Christ – “the true idea voicing good, the divine message from God to men speaking to the human consciousness,” as Christian Science discoverer Mary Baker Eddy puts it (“Science and Health with Key the Scriptures,” p. 332) – reminding us of our eternal oneness with God, good. By accepting this divinely inspired view of ourselves, reformation can begin.

The truth is, there are probably a lot more people open to this sort of transformation than we think. Not that you could just walk into your local prison, tell everyone they’re a child of God, and hope for the best. But when spoken with the conviction that comes from truly seeing individuals being so much more than what their rap sheet, their family history, or even their demoralized opinion of themselves may suggest, this spiritual idea of them can have a huge impact.

This isn’t always easy. It is, however, essential if we are to have any hope of reducing violence in our communities – an effort made easier as we’re both receptive and responsive to the love that God, divine Love itself, has given us to express and to see expressed in others.

Adapted from an article originally published at Communities Digital News, Sept. 26, 2016.

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Viewfinder

Finding home after a hurricane

“Street dogs” from Puerto Rico have been making their way north from shelters and rescue programs in Puerto Rico for years. Hurricane Maria pushed up the volume of canine need there, as it did on so many other fronts. The Monitor’s Hannah Schlomann and Melanie Stetson Freeman visited a shelter in Methuen, Mass., where dozens of hopeful adopters turned out to meet a batch of rambunctious new arrivals. Read Hannah's story here. Click the image below for Melanie’s video.

( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte. )
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In Our Next Issue

( October 23rd, 2017 )

Clayton Collins
Daily Edition Editor

Thanks for joining us today. Have a wonderful weekend and come back around next week. We’ll be watching the Sunday parliamentary elections called for by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and we'll have a report on what the results mean. 

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