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Taxes, like death, are inevitable. However, that conception of taxes doesn’t reflect how the majority of Americans view their relationship to their local, state, and federal government taxes. Vanessa Williamson, a scholar at the Brookings Institution sits down with Building Local Power host and Community Broadband Networks initiative director Christopher Mitchell to talk about her new book, Read My Lips: Why Americans Are Proud to Pay Taxes.
Williamson argues during the heart of this podcast; “I think that it is good for Americans to think about taxes as the part of their labor that they contribute to the public good. I think that is a powerful way thinking, you have to remember everyone else is chipping in too.”
“[T]he problems that we face as a country come from a shortage of democracy, a shortage of deliberative deep democracy as opposed to a problem of people participating too much,” says Vanessa Williamson, scholar at the Brookings Institution of the issues we’re tackling as a country.
“To the extent that we are experimenting with new ways to engage people in the politics genuinely does shape their lives, I think it’s worth trying.”
Podcast: The Dark Store Tax Dodge of Big-Box Retailers — This first episode of the Building Local Power details how big box stores across America are dodging taxes by bilking local governments to develop their giant stores and even bigger parking lots.
Institute for Local Self-Reliance: “Tax” Tag — All of the stories tagged with “tax” on our website details the relationship that taxes — whether property, sales, income, state — play in economies and with giant firms. Get the latest information on taxes in retail, broadband, energy, and waste stream issues.
MuniNetworks.org: “Property Tax” Tag — This tag on the MuniNetworks.org site details the how communities looking to invest in municipal fiber networks utilize local property taxes — or not — to build out that infrastructure.
|Christopher Mitchell:||Hello this is Chris Mitchell with the institute for local self reliance, hosting once again the building local power podcast. Welcome back to another episode, today I am speaking with Vanessa Williamson, a fellow in government studies at the Brookings institution. Welcome to the show.|
|Vanessa Williamson:||Glad to be here.|
|Christopher Mitchell:||We’re going to talk about taxes, today and one of the reasons is because you wrote this book that I think is an eye opener and is highly recommended for people to open. It’s called “Read my Lips why Americans are Proud to Pay Taxes”. Can you just say, maybe a word about why you wrote an entire book about this subject.|
|Vanessa Williamson:||I realized in my previous being on the tea party that there was a lot of work looking at what people on the far right think about taxes or least the extremes of the political spectrum a little bit, maybe. We didn’t actually know very much about what most people think about taxes and I also noticed in trying to look into the question, that we tend to ask American’s the same questions over and over and over again, about taxes that rich people pay. We very rarely ask about taxes most people pay, so I thought there was really room for a much broader and also in a sense a deeper study of what Americans think. Not assuming that they have particular policy knowledge, but actually sort of delving into their experience of tax paying and how that shapes their knowledge.|
|Christopher Mitchell:||What we are going to be talking about, a lot of the opinions, you didn’t just do studies you really did a lot of in depth research over many years to try and just briefly why should people think that you have a good handle on what Americans think about taxes.|
|Vanessa Williamson:||I spent about six years studying the subject, looking at what Americans think about taxes in surveys, in interviews, at the voting booth when they get to vote on state and local tax measures, in public statements and letters to the editor, in basically any handle I could get on an opportunity where individual Americans got to share their views on taxation.|
|Christopher Mitchell:||You convinced me and just to know this is methodology that I’ve seen in other books as well, that really tracked well with getting at a true understanding, not just someone thinking on a survey I’m just going to click a button or something like that. I was wanting to get a couple of quick facts, I think many of us remember that 47% figure from the 2012 elections, suggesting that 47% of Americans just don’t pay taxes. Who pays taxes in the United States of America?|
|Vanessa Williamson:||The 47% statistic is accurate as far as it goes in the sense that 40% of income tax filing households do not have a net federal income tax liability. Right, that’s a lot smaller though then 47% of Americans, in fact because we pay many, many kinds of taxes including income taxes, payroll taxes, sale taxes, gas taxes, property taxes, and many more. Almost every not just American almost every resident of the United States almost every person who goes into a coffee shop and buys a cup of coffee pays taxes, so we’re all taxpayers by any reasonable standard. There is a lot of attention on the Federal income tax and so sometimes people think that if you don’t pay much or you don’t pay anything in Federal income tax you don’t pay taxes at all and that’s just not true.|
|Christopher Mitchell:||One of the things that I found particularly interesting with some of your interviews was the language associated with paying taxes and I wrote a few of them down. People viewed it as an important civic duty, a duty just like voting, an obligation linked to political voice, did any of the interviews really strike you that you still think about in terms of how they viewed paying taxes.|
|Vanessa Williamson:||Yeah, this was something that I wasn’t expecting honestly although the survey data would actually support it but I thought those were weakly held opinions. Again and again when I asked people you know is it your responsibility to pay taxes or is it okay to hold back a little bit here and there especially because the governments so wasteful or something like that. People said no, people really do see in America tax paying is an important civic amendment, because they see it as a symbol of being an upstanding citizen, of being the kind of person who contributes to your community, and you know I was struck by it over and over again all over the political spectrum. I remember speaking to a former Marine who’s actually a very politically progressive person, and I asked what he thought of when he heard the word taxes, and he said oh well it’s the cost of being an American and you know for someone who’s quite obviously made a much larger commitment frankly to America, it really struck me.
I remember I talked to mailman who’s a very conservative guy in Ohio and I asked him so how do you feel when you’re paying your federal income taxes, a very standard question that I would ask and I was expecting you know, an opportunity, this is an opportunity to rail against government but instead he talked about it as part of his duty, as part of his responsibility. He was upholding a responsibility that was his job. I was really surprised by how overwhelming the American commitment is to the idea of tax paying.
|Christopher Mitchell:||That tracks with my experience and I have a somewhat unique experience because I have a business that has income that is not withheld, so I have my job with the institute for local self reliance and then I also run a business doing sport photography for a number of clients. I had a really good year one year and the accountant says Chris I’m sorry but you had a really good year this previous year and I had to write a check that was very large to the Federal government in April and for me I sort of knew it was coming, I didn’t know it would be that large and one of the things that you say in the introduction really struck with me, which is the value of what I’m getting.
I love this country I’ve traveled around the world a fair amount and you talk about how it’s hard to place a value on what people are getting for their taxes, what the value of winning World War II was in terms of relation to Veterans benefits and things like that. I just think that really struck with me because it is painful, I would have rather spent that money on something else probably a brand new lens for my camera, but it was something that really I can’t describe the amount of value I get. I would pay more if I had to stay here, if they said we’re going to double your tax bill or you’re going to leave the country, I would not be happy right, but I would pay twice as much to stay here. That’s just some thoughts that I have about that sort of similar sentiment.
|Vanessa Williamson:||You what struck me is how many Americans hold views that are along those lines, but they think they are alone they think they are the only one in the world holds that sentiment and it’s not always quite as that is a very generous sentiment that you’re expressing. Right? The idea that it’s your job to give something back and you are grateful for things that this country has given you. Americans really believe that and they believe it both widely in a sense that 95% of Americans will agree with the idea that it’s your civic duty to pay your fair share of taxes.
They also agree with it deeply in the sense that I didn’t seek out people’s civic responsibilities when I started this, I actually didn’t, I was cynical about that, I thought that was not a widely held view but people bring it up when you talk to them. One way that you can see it is actually in the amount of anger people express about tax paying, because what they express anger about is not typically the amount they themselves pay, but the idea that someone else isn’t paying their share. That is just the flip side, right, if you think you’re doing your responsible act, right, the idea that someone else is skipping out is really upsetting.
|Christopher Mitchell:||Right and that brings us to in some ways why this is so relevant for the audience that is listening to this as we traditionally conceive of them. We talk a lot about monopolies, and I think we have a sense that monopolies for instance are not paying their fair share. AT&T, Verizon often seem like they go years where they don’t pay any income taxes, I’m trying to be more specific about it because I’m sure they pay some taxes. I hope they pay some taxes but it’s important to think about these feelings because when we’re proposing as we often do on this show government programs to be able to rectify some of the failings of the marketplace or the failings of previous government policies. We need to power the government with something, one of the things that I have heard in terms of relation a solution to monopoly would be government having more independent research that’s not industry funded.
That would cost a lot of money, which would probably come from taxes so ergo taxes are an important piece of the conversation. We believe in economic opportunities for everyone and recognize that some households whether due to historic marginalization, bad luck, or even some bad choices need some form of help. All these reasons are why we need to pay attention to the revenue coming in, one of the things that I’ve heard from people that I respect in response to some of this is well, if people believe so strongly in paying taxes why do we see such a resistance to it and in fact it seems like if you want to attack Democrats you attack them for the way they spend taxpayer dollars and the fact that they are willing to raise it. Republicans have run decades on being a part of that, so that will only ever lower taxes and in fact the one President that was Republican in my lifetime who is somewhat responsible on the deficit. George H.W. Bush is considered a joke and terrible Republican because he dared to raise taxes. So how do we square that circle?
|Vanessa Williamson:||So I think that a common mistake in sort of the way that we talk about politics, is to imagine that our political outcomes represent the views of most people and we know that, that’s not true, when we stopped to examine it. It’s not true on taxes and most Americans are not particularly upset about the amount of taxes that they pay, in fact if you ask people what bothers them about taxes you would get somewhere, I don’t know eight or ten percent of Americans say the amount they pay. 2/3 of Americans say that they’re angry the wealthy or corporations are not paying their share, right, and what did we get, we get a tax bill that cuts taxes at the top and nothing give a break to anyone else anywhere.
So why do we see that? We see that because our government doesn’t do a very good job of representing majority views. Partly it was designed not to do a good job or representing majority views, right, but it’s no less the case that Americans want sensible gun control, simply because we don’t get it, right, it’s not people have strongly held views about for instance raising the minimum wage, that’s not why we don’t get it. The problem in our politics is not best explained by an individual level failure on the part of voters, it is best explained by a series of systematic failures in how we aggregate votes and how we channel the voices of not very powerful individuals into very powerful institutions.
|Christopher Mitchell:||Does it also have an effect that most people seem to think that the wealthy actually pay far less in taxes than they do. We can talk about fair share and where that’s set, but I wonder sometimes when someone like me goes around saying there’s all these loopholes, I feel like actually people that are listening sometimes they overestimate the number of loopholes and the amount that the wealthy pay.|
|Vanessa Williamson:||A majority of Americans in fact a strong majority of Americans support progressive taxation, right, they think that wealthy people should pay more than lower income people and they think they should pay more as a percentage not just as a dollar amount, right. Among people who support a flat tax, a fair amount of that support comes from people who think a flat tax would raise taxes on the rich. Now why? Previous survey work hadn’t been able to figure this out, I looked at it in interviews and it looks pretty convincing to me that one reason for that is because people know that taxes are not only progressive at the Federal income taxes, the progressive tax and that the rate needs to go up, but they think it’s under mind by loopholes, exactly as you say. They think well, if we had a flat tax within the loop holes maybe we’d actually get those rich people who have managed to lower their tax responsibilities to zero in their minds, right.
As a whole the sort of upper income people if your talking about the top 20% of people actually do pay quite a lot in taxes, as a whole our taxes is more progressive than many tax systems in Europe because we rely heavily on an income tax. That’s true right up till you get to the very, very, very, very rich right, so you have 60 million dollars more a year, well okay there is actually being, becomes hard to even measure what someone’s income is right. For the majority of people the tax system is progressive if you make more money, you pay more money and you pay more money as a percentage. I think it is a problem that especially on the left we talk a lot about loopholes and oh loopholes are bad of course loopholes are bad but they don’t actually undermine the progressive tax code, and I think that sometimes we’re actually doing ourselves a damage in terms of talking about who pays what, when we focus so strongly on loopholes.
|Christopher Mitchell:||Your office is here in Northwest Washington D.C. a section of D.C. associated with fairly progressive Liberal ideas and that sort of thing. I’m sure being in Washington D.C. you know a lot of more Liberal type folks. Do these findings about people’s willingness to pay for government and in fact the number one complaint basically being that other people aren’t paying their fair share? Do you feel like you’re a crazy person among a bunch of people where I mean on the left I think there’s a broad idea that most Americans are individualistic, they hate government, they don’t want to deal with government at all and that sort of thing and I agree with you regarding the need to improve the outcomes of government and I agree with your assessment as to why that often doesn’t happen. It does seem to me like the left is convinced and the right also that Americans don’t want government at all almost.|
|Vanessa Williamson:||So I think that it’s fair to say that Americans are what’s called Philosophical conservatives and operational Liberals right, so if you ask people do they think government should be small, they tend to say yes, yes that’s right. But if you ask them should government invest in more in things like social security, medicare, education, helping the poor, people say yes and they even say they’d pay more for it right, so in sort of broad strokes American’s do like the sort of language of individualism.
Yes that’s absolutely true but if you ask them on any specifics, well actually they like a really strong welfare state right, and I think that there is a tendency especially in the kind of place that I live to blame bad political outcomes on sort of a failure of individual people and sort of denigrate the capacity of average American’s to understand politics, to engage in politics and I think that’s a real, that’s the way that I feel like I’m shouting in the wilderness. When I say actually I went around and interviewed and surveyed Americans as close to a representative group as I could manage and I came away impressed and heartened.
|Christopher Mitchell:||Many people are quite reasonable when you talk to them face to face.|
|Vanessa Williamson:||Exactly and it’s absolutely not reflected in our politics, it is true.|
|Christopher Mitchell:||The thing that surprised me the most in your work and research was the extent to which I feel that people who feel that they don’t pay taxes or they don’t pay enough taxes feel like their political voice should not matter. I think I would argue that their voice does not matter and I’m frustrated with that, I want to find ways to fix it. They weren’t arguing my voice doesn’t matter because I’m marginalized, they were arguing I don’t pay much in taxes and there for maybe my views should not matter as much. I found that very disappointing in some ways.|
|Vanessa Williamson:||A side effect of the sort of focus Nationally on the Federal income tax, which is a tax that is progressive and low, or a negative for low income people and high for at least most of the upper income spectrum till you get to the very top. The focus on that taxes the thing that qualifies you as a taxpayer leaves many low income people feeling they don’t deserve to be heard right, and I heard this over and over again. In interviews, I’d be talking to a lower income person, and they would say oh I’m not sure that I’m the best person to talk to, I don’t really pay taxes and sometimes this was with someone who would only a few minutes earlier been talking to me about how hard it was to get the money together to cover the sales tax on their groceries.
If you’re talking about taxes in terms of hardship imposed the 2000 dollars we take out of the person making 20,000 dollars is infinitely more hardship than the taxes I pay, which are of course higher in amount and percentage, but not higher in actual cost.
|Christopher Mitchell:||You make this point very well I think, and I was impressed the extent to which it seems almost every American that’s from a household struggling this way can do the math, immediately in their head and the sales tax right, I mean these are people that are calculating out to the penny what the sales tax would be on these various items in their carts. To the extent that I’m just glad that I don’t have to worry about that anymore.|
|Vanessa Williamson:||Yeah, I mean that was especially in the states that I’ve. You know I love taxes, I’m in favor of taxes my book in front of me right now says I heart taxes and it’s true. There’s two kinds of taxes that I don’t like obviously the poll tax and the tax on groceries. You can’t talk to poor Americans at all about what it’s like to go to a grocery store and not think that it’s shameful that we are taking a months worth of grocery money out of the budget of people who are barely making ends meet. You know the amount of sort of pain that’s involved when people have to think to make those calculations in their head, as you say on their way to the counter so they don’t have the embarrassment of having to put things back, that’s just unconscionable to me.|
|Christopher Mitchell:||Connecting to the previous thought then, and yet they still walk away thinking I don’t pay taxes and there for you know I’m not as important perhaps as someone who pays a lot of taxes.|
|Vanessa Williamson:||I think this is a real that we make. Taxes that are very expensive for many people sales taxes, payroll taxes so invisible and make the Federal income tax so controversial, it really I think misleads people about the distribution of tax responsibility in this country.|
|Christopher Mitchell:||For people who want to read the book, this is the kind of pros that gets summing this up. Because tax paying is seen as a emblem of civic worthiness, denying the poor of the status of tax payers has the effect of denying their political standing. Classing a large percentage of the populist as a kind of second class citizenry is genuinely toxic for Democratic norms, it’s really worth noting as for people who are listening to this show, who are in many cases are involved their communities of how to build movements and things like that. I just feel like it’s really important to address those sorts of issues because we often wonder how these people aren’t more politically active, given the role that government programs play in their lives, the way that these programs are under threat, I think this is part of the explanation.|
|Vanessa Williamson:||I mean I’d like to think so, I certainly wanted the purpose of the book to be to draw attention to the tax paying experience of most Americans which, is not all about April 15th every year. Although actually can be a real boom to low income families. I think that rightly or wrongly American’s see tax paying as this important responsibility that’s tied up with being a citizen. In fact that’s something that’s lasted throughout our history, a piece of work that I have not yet done but is sort of a follow on to the book is looking at how taxpayers have been represented throughout American history. Going back obviously to the founding and taxation and representation, if you look at the women’s movement if you look at the civil rights movement, if you look at immigrants rights movement’s today people who have been refused the status of citizen or full citizen often describe themselves as a taxpayer and use that status as sort of a way of advocating for more complete representation. I think it’s a really important part of our history.|
|Christopher Mitchell:||Absolutely and I’m reminded of a discussion I had with a women on the city counsel of San Antonio where they work without pay and you often hear from constituents, you know I pay your salary and she’s have to remind people actually you don’t, I volunteer in this capacity but nonetheless you are my constituent I take your views seriously, that sort of thing. But you hear that constantly from people who are frustrated with their elected officials, of I pay the bills around here and to some extent they’re certainly right.|
|Vanessa Williamson:||I think that it is good for American’s to think about taxes as the part of their labor that they contribute to the public good. I think that is a powerful way thinking, but you have to remember everyone else is chipping in too. You pay a very marginal amount of any civil servants taxes right, and it doesn’t actually matter how much you’re paying because you’re a citizen and a resident and you deserve to be heard. I think that there is something powerful in the American psyche about the idea that this is the part of my work that I gave to all of us.|
|Christopher Mitchell:||One of the powerful ideas that seems not to go away and is very important is correlated with race and one of the findings that you had, which I did not find surprising unfortunately is that there is a correlation between people who are anti African American who presumably were willing to tell surveys or otherwise be open with those views and being anti tax. In some ways that actually seems like it fits because it also seems like anti American at least in the America that I want to live in.|
|Vanessa Williamson:||This is a long trend in American history, I told the positive stories a second ago about the women’s movement, the civil rights movement right, but the counter movements to all of those movements also talked about taxes. You see anti immigrant activist talk all the time about oh they’re here they’re not paying taxes, which is not true and is in fact. You know my book has a lot of counter intuitive findings but the one that I have consistently had a hard time convincing people who don’t agree with me on, is that undocumented people pay taxes, and that’s just a fact. That’s not a complicated fact there are dollars in the treasury that are the result of undocumented people paying taxes, a lot of those dollars right, this is not nearly as controversial or complicated as anything else I work on, it is so hard to convince people of that.|
|Christopher Mitchell:||For my job applications I never saw an opportunity in the I-9 or whatever the form was to check off the I-4 I forget what it is. You know I am an undocumented immigrant therefore I don’t do any withholding.|
|Vanessa Williamson:||I mean the withholding the particularly payroll taxes, social security benefits, which undocumented people do not qualify, but they chip in, they’re actually helping keep social security a float right now. Sales taxes obviously apply to anyone who’s in the country at the time and in store, these are not taxes that are avoidable and this is a real situation I think that in, which it’s sad to discovery as a researcher and a political scientist. I can come with my pie chart, but it doesn’t actually defeat racism and that is the most disappointing aspect of the work that I did, there was so much positivity and some much to be hopeful about but the strength of anti immigrant sentiment and the racism that embedded in that is maybe the great challenge that we face.|
|Christopher Mitchell:||In your research and in surveying other research in this matter have you seen anything that helps to deal with that? In the specific tax space I don’t want to get into fields that you’re not as much of an expert in.|
|Vanessa Williamson:||I think that on the subject of changing attitudes on taxation, one thing that has at least shown some effect is giving people more information about the taxes they pay. There’s been experiments done for instance in providing people, you may have even received one of these, with a statement that told you how much you paid into social security and how much you could expect to benefit later. They were these green statements that were handed out for a couple of years, the program was unfortunately ended. But they randomized it so you could actually measure whether people who’d received these statements knew more and felt better about things or worse for that matter. What they found was that if you had gotten these statements you were better informed about social security and you felt more positively about the program so there are ways in which government can be respectful to the people who have tipped in all this cash and tell them more about where that money is going, and that may help.
There’s a really long and dark history in this country regarding our capacity to see each other as fellow citizens and an example of that if you go back even to the end of the reconstruction the redemption governments that came into place, the white supremacist governments that came into place at the end of this sort of period of progressive increases in equality across the south. Those governments describe themselves as rule of the taxpayer right, and what they meant by that was rule by white plantation owners and so I’m not sure that the language of tax paying is the answer but I’m sure it’s the field on which our fights about who counts as a citizen are going to be flawed.
|Christopher Mitchell:||One of the hopes that I’ve had in terms of recently technological fixes is video games, in particular participatory budgeting types stuff, where one can try to play around with a budget. Public radio has sometimes hosted these on websites and then help people to get a better sense of where their money’s going. Is there any hope for that or is that something that was just a fad five years ago and has just disappeared?|
|Vanessa Williamson:||I don’t know, I’m a [inaudible 00:24:21] myself, so I tend to be suspicious of all technological solutions, including the ones I eventually can’t do without. I’m perhaps not the person to ask, but I will say that I think that all endeavors that are directed towards better informing the American citizenry are at least worth trying right. Particularly when they come from the perspective of, that the problems that we face as a country come from a shortage of Democracy, a shortage of deliberative deep Democracy as opposed to a problem of people participating too much, and we should just leave it all to the experts. To the extent that we are experimenting with new ways to engage people in the politics genuinely does shape their lives, I think it’s worth trying.|
|Christopher Mitchell:||As we wrap up, I’m curious if you would agree then that for people who for instance the people who might think that the future of solving health care might involve more government and perhaps higher taxes, for people who, I actually think we can solve rural broadband while lowering the tax burden effectively because we have misspent so much money in terms of the subsidies to the big companies in phasing it out. None the less for people who might think that we have to spend more, whether in the Federal or the local level, your impression is that people would be receptive to that if they had a faith that the money was going to be well spent, is my impression at least. That people don’t feel like they couldn’t possibly live if their taxes went up.|
|Vanessa Williamson:||One piece of evidence that suggests that’s the case is if you look at state ballot measures right, so these are measures at the state level if you’re from California like I am you are very familiar with ballot measures, other states also use them. I looked at every state ballot measure that was intended to raise taxes and 40 years ago if you put a measure on the ballot to raise taxes you had about a one in five chance of that measure passing. These are pretty bad odds right, now in the last 15 years if you put a measure on a state ballot anywhere in the country that has them you have about one in two chance of that measure passing, which is extremely good by ballot measure standards right.
This has been a really steady increase over 40 years, so I think what we’re seeing is that if you actually ask voters hey, and if you go to the voters and say hey, I want to protect our nurses and teachers it’s going to cost an extra .25 cents when you buy things at the store or I want to protect nurses and teachers it’s going to involve an increase in our top income tax rate, people sometimes say yes to that. In fact far more often than you might imagine, so I think again instead of evidence that if we’re looking at why our politics don’t reflect most Americans views on taxation the problem is in the systems not in the people.
|Christopher Mitchell:||I think that’s right and I think it’s worth noting there’s hope out there and it’s in some ways an incentive to get it right, because if we fail to enact the programs that we want, to build the society we want to live in is not because it was preordained, because we live in a country that’s anti tax it’s because maybe we didn’t do a good enough job and we need to work hard at making sure that we get the things that we want.|
|Vanessa Williamson:||I think that, that’s right.|
|Christopher Mitchell:||Thank you so much for your time today.|
|Vanessa Williamson:||Thank you.|
|Lisa Gonzalez:||That was Vanessa Williamson joining Christopher Mitchell from the community broadband network initiative here at the Institute for local self reliance, this is episode 41 of the building local power podcast. Please take a moment to help us continue to bring high quality guest like Vanessa to you through this commercial free podcast by donating at ILSR.org/donate. We encourage you to also connect with us on Twitter and Facebook and to subscribe to this podcast and our other podcast local energy rules and the Community Broadband Bits podcast, you can do that on apple podcast, titchy or wherever else you get your podcasts. You can also sign up for our monthly newsletter at ILSR.org. Thanks to disfunction now for the music license through creative commons, the song is funk interlude. I’m Lisa Gonzalez from the Institute for local self reliance, thank you for listening to episode 41 of the building local power podcast.|
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