Our low “spirit level”: America ranks 27th out of 31 nations in global social justice study

Based on measures of social justice, America ranks 27th among 31 member nations of the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD), according to “Social Justice in the OECD — How Do the Member States Compare?,” a report released last week by Bertelsmann Stiftung, a private German foundation.

Here are some of the low points for the U.S. in the report:

  • 28th in income inequality
  • 29th in poverty prevention
  • 28th in child poverty
  • 22nd in unemployment and long-term unemployment
  • 20th in access to education
  • 23rd in health care
  • 25th in debt levels

In no category does the U.S. place in the higher ranks.

Overall, the four nations ranked immediately above the U.S. are Portugal, Slovakia, South Korea, and Spain. Only Greece, Chile, Mexico, and Turkey rank below the U.S.

“We should be ashamed”

New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow references the study and writes:

We have not taken care of the least among us. We have allowed a revolting level of income inequality to develop. We have watched as millions of our fellow countrymen have fallen into poverty. And we have done a poor job of educating our children and now threaten to leave them a country that is a shell of its former self. We should be ashamed.

The Times also prepared an excellent graphic that highlights selected measures in the report. The full report is only 50+ pages, with lots of easy-to-read charts and summaries.

America’s “spirit level”

In The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger (rev. ed. 2010), British epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett examined comparative economic and social data and found that social and health problems worsen as inequality grows.

In fact, overall wealth is less predictive than distribution of wealth in forecasting the well-being of a populace. In terms of public health, they found that while the poor are the biggest beneficiaries of greater equality, the wealthy make gains as well. Here’s a short YouTube video of Wilkinson and Pickett explaining their book:

The U.S. fares poorly in The Spirit Level as well, mirroring the findings of the OECD study.


What else is there to say? America, we’ve got our work cut out for us.

Occupy movement goes global: 900 cities and counting

The social protest movement that started several weeks ago with Occupy Wall Street has gone global, as Esther Addley reports for Guardian newspaper (link here):

  • 60,000 protesters in Barcelona, Spain
  • 25,000 in Santiago, Chile
  • 5,000+ “massed outside the European Central Bank” in Frankfurt, Germany
  • 4,000 in London
  • 3,000 in Auckland, New Zealand

Addley adds:

The Occupy campaign may have hoped, at its launch, to inspire similar action elsewhere, but few can have foreseen that within four weeks, more than 900 cities around the world would host co-ordinated protests directly or loosely affiliated to the Occupy cause.

Testifying on the human costs: Occupy the Boardroom

As protests mount, others are finding ways to spread the message online. Joshua Holland, writing for AlterNet (link here) reports on Occupy the Boardroom, a project that allows members of the public to share personal stories of what the economic meltdown has done to them and their families. For example, here is what one woman from North Carolina wrote to fellow Tar Heel Erskine Bowles, co-chair of the President’s national debt commission:

Like you I’m from the Tar Heel state so I thought I’d tell you my story. A couple of years ago my father died waiting for a liver transplant. It was an ugly, horrible death and left me parentless while still in my 20s. My brother and I inherited the small ranch-style house my father worked his whole life to pay off. (Our mother died during our childhoods.) I wanted to take care of my father’s money so I invested it. Six months later I had lost over half of it when the crash happened. I lost half of my father’s life savings because of the corrupt practices of Wall Street. My father worked his whole life. He was the 11th child of a sharecropping family and was sent to the cotton fields before he was ten. He completed high school but there was no money for college so he went to work at blue-collar jobs which he used to support us his whole life.

When I think of the money I lost, I think of my father’s hands. I think of his broken, scarred hands that built a home and future for me. It wasn’t just money that Wall Street stole. Futures, trust, hard work and respect — those are the things Wall Street corruption has stolen from the American People, not just money. I don’t think everyone on Wall Street is corrupt, but the system is, and I want to do my part to correct it, even if it’s just writing a letter like this. I owe my father that. Mr. Bowles, I hope you do your part too. Because of your position, you are a powerful person in our society. So I ask you, how will you use your power? What will your legacy be?


Watch and listen to this catchy video and song above, “We Are the 99%,” posted on YouTube.

Related posts

Economics 101: Defining terms and saving capitalism from itself

From “punk-styled kids” to airline pilots, is Occupy Wall Street the start of something big?

Post-meltdown America: An economic recovery for the wealthy

Globalization and workers 101: A quick primer

Should workplace bullying be a criminal offense in the U.S.?

A recurring question within the workplace anti-bullying movement in the U.S. is whether workplace bullying should be a criminal offense. This discussion has been fueled by recent legal developments in Australia, where the state of Victoria has criminalized workplace bullying, as well as ongoing awareness that under French law, “moral harassment” can be a criminal offense.

I cannot speak with sufficient authority about whether the legal systems in other nations are capable of handling criminal claims for workplace bullying, but I do believe that making standard-brand workplace bullying a criminal offense in the U.S. would create significant challenges for targets seeking justice and seriously disrupt our workplaces.

This position is informed not only by a decade of research, advocacy, and public education about workplace bullying as a law professor, but also by my experiences as a former assistant attorney general for New York State enforcing workplace safety laws and as a former public defender arguing criminal appeals on behalf of indigent defendants in New York City.

Here are some of my specific concerns:

Overworked police and prosecutors offices

The idea that already overburdened police departments and prosecutors offices would be able to investigate a rush of complaints from workers claiming they were bullied is wholly unrealistic. The criminal justice system cannot handle what’s currently on its plate.

In addition, we shouldn’t expect police departments, labor departments, and prosecutors offices to create special units to handle workplace bullying complaints. At best, state or federal labor departments might be able to prosecute a small number of easy-to-prove, high visibility cases. Anyone who expects more should read up on the status of city, state, and federal law enforcement budgets.

No private cause of action

Those who favor criminal sanctions for workplace bullying should be aware that if law enforcement authorities don’t want to go forward with a prosecution, there is no further action on a case. If workplace bullying is made a criminal offense, those whose complaints do not lead to a prosecution will have no further recourse; one cannot pursue a criminal case solely as a private citizen.

No damages to the target, no punishment of organizations

In most cases, the criminal justice system does not provide compensation to victims; that’s what the civil justice system is designed to do. Therefore, even a successful prosecution of an individual bully will not provide damages to the target. (And try collecting from someone who is imprisoned, in any event!)

Also, because individuals, not institutions, are the subject of criminal prosecutions (as opposed to, say, employment claims that can be brought against employers), there will be no organizational accountability for bullying situations enabled by abusive or dysfunctional work environments.

Impact on workers and workplaces

This is a definitely an example of beware, you may get what you seek.

First, workers already are reluctant to file claims against their employers when they have valid claims recognized by the law. How many would be willing to press criminal charges by calling the police or some other government entity?

Second, how would the presence of police or criminal investigators showing up at an office in response to a complaint about bullying at work further fracture already damaged employment relationships? And would there be any disincentive for an underperforming, unhappy worker to “drop a dime” on a supervisor he doesn’t like?

Burden of proof

Some have criticized the Healthy Workplace Bill for creating too high a legal threshold for making a successful claim at trial, especially the requirements that targets prove the behaviors (1) were intended to harm them and (2) caused tangible mental or physical harm.

Well, that’s nothing compared to proving a criminal claim for workplace bullying, where the burden of proof is beyond a reasonable doubt. Think the Casey Anthony acquittal. Think the O.J. Simpson acquittal.

It bears mentioning that the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act does provide for short terms of imprisonment for willful violations of workplace safety codes that cause a worker’s death. However, despite many worker fatalities due to unsafe working conditions, this is one of the very least invoked provisions of the law. Criminal prosecutions under OSHA are a rarity.

Existing criminal law

Extreme cases of workplace bullying, especially those that involve physical harm, already may be violative of existing criminal laws for assault, battery, or false imprisonment. Various criminal wiretapping and surveillance laws may cover bullying that uses advanced technologies.


In sum, criminalizing workplace bullying in the U.S. sounds a lot better in theory than it would play out in reality.  Some targets, understandably angry about being subjected to this terrible form of abuse, imagine with great satisfaction their tormenters being hauled off to prison. However, in most cases of workplace bullying, this would be extremely unlikely to occur.

A global resource guide to laws related to workplace bullying and violence

Boston-based attorney Ellen Pinkos Cobb, a consultant for the Isoceles Group, has authored a very useful and thorough resource guide that summarizes laws related to workplace bullying and violence in nations around the world, Bullying, Violence, Harassment, Discrimination and Stress: Emerging Workplace Health and Safety Issues (2011).

It’s a 270+ page compilation and review of relevant laws from around the world, organized by region and country, with plenty of links and bibliographical lists. There are several affordable pricing options (marking a substantial reduction from the original price), with an e-book at $33 and a hard copy at $55. For more information and to order, go to this link.

Ellen also recently authored a fine overview piece highlighting the international significance of workplace bullying, Workplace bullying:: A global overview for Management-issues.com.

“How much is enough?”

The cover of the Summer 2011 issue of the World Policy Journal asks plainly: How much is enough?

The environment

In one of the lead essays (link here), environmentalist William Powers — a one-time child of relative privilege from Long Island — answers the question from an environmental perspective:

This conversation is vitally important because of some bad news. Technology alone won’t save us from environmental collapse. It will take four or five generations of technological innovation to achieve carbon-free production. Alas, we don’t have that much time.

He takes aim at his own upbringing in assessing the problem:

The price of my privileged upbringing was my ignorance of the true effects of global hyper-development…. I was taught to see myself as a child of the American Dream. In reality, I am a child of the Age of Ecocide.

Powers has chosen to embrace voluntary simplicity as a response to this crisis, as well as to become socially engaged in environmental advocacy.

A dollar a day

Voluntary simplicity may sound good, but for many, simplicity is not a choice. As Mira Kamdar, examining the wide wealth gap in India, states (link here):

Voluntary simplicity can only appeal to those who have enough to choose to live with less. For those who live in a one-room shack without electricity because they have no other choice, a simple lifestyle is a life of deprivation.

Kamdar points out that, amidst brazen conspicuous consumption in India, some “800 million people still live on less than a dollar a day.”

Emerging age of scarcity

I believe that most of us will be facing this question sooner than later, if we have not already. In a 2010 piece for The Futurist (membership magazine of the World Future Society), Stephen Aguilar-Millan, Ann Feeney, Amy Oberg, and Elizabeth Rudd painted a bracing view of economic life between now and 2050:

The world economy will experience scarcities of natural resources from now until the middle of the twenty-first century, when a post-scarcity world becomes a reality….The world between 2010 and 2050 is likely to be characterized by scarcities: a scarcity of credit, a scarcity of food, a scarcity of energy, a scarcity of water, and a scarcity of mineral resources.

How much is enough?

Americans who came of age in the late 20th century are not used to acknowledging lasting, systemic downward cycles in material wealth and resources. Well, forgive me for sounding like a naysayer, but I believe that age of scarcity is upon us, even if we have yet to acknowledge it. The question of how much is enough will have increasing relevance in our lives.

For the have-nots, the question will be one of survival, as in how much do I need to sustain my life and the lives of my loved ones?

For the haves, the question will be one of personal choice and ethics, as in how much am I willing to share, donate, or be taxed in order to provide food, shelter, and clothing for others in dire need?

For the majority somewhere in the middle, the question will be fraught with insecurity and pangs of conscience, fueled by awareness that jobs and nest eggs can disappear at a moment’s notice, while recognizing that many others are much worse off.

To borrow from Thomas Paine, these will be times that try our souls.

Dignity amidst horrific indignity: A job shoveling s**t in the Łódź Ghetto

In the Łódź Ghetto of German-occupied Poland during the Second World War, Harold Bursztajn’s father could’ve received extra protections and privileges by agreeing to serve on the ghetto’s Jewish police force, which the Nazis used to control the local populace. Because he didn’t want to become so directly complicit with his oppressors, he declined.

Instead of receiving special treatment to keep his neighbors in line, the elder Bursztajn was put to work as a “fecalist,” a person who collected their droppings. Fecalists were given no protective clothing, no masks, and no gloves, and many had to work without shoes.

It is difficult to imagine how abominably dirty and disgusting the job must have been. Because they reeked with the smell of their work, the fecalists became the untouchables (or at least the “unapproachables”) of the ghetto.

Why this job?

The job was not meant solely to demean. You see, none of the thousands of apartments in the Łódź Ghetto had indoor plumbing, and there was no public sewage system to speak of. Risk of infectious diseases ran rampant. However, because Łódź was a manufacturing city that provided forced labor to fuel the Nazi war machine, keeping these people alive — at least until they had nothing left to give — was a high priority.

Thus emerged a perverse convergence of interests. The Jews wanted to survive, and the Nazis needed their labor. Out of nothing, a public health system emerged. At presumably the lowest rung of this system came the folks whose job was to remove the mounds of human waste that posed the threat of deadly disease.

How they made a difference

The fecalists may have stank, but they used this to their advantage: The Germans, too, gave them wide berth, which meant that they could smuggle information and small amounts of supplies without fear of being searched.

And, lest we forget, their work saved lives — however temporarily in view of the eventual fates of ghetto residents. Fatalities from infectious diseases dropped precipitously once this improvised public health system took shape, and the fecalists became part of the first line of defense by providing more sanitary living conditions for those in the ghetto.

A remarkable panel

This summary does not come close to adequately conveying the fascinating depth of this story and others that were part of a gripping panel on health care, medical ethics, and public health in the German-occupied Jewish ghettos, presented at the biennial Congress of the International Academy of Law and Mental Health, hosted this week by Berlin’s Humboldt University.

The story of the fecalists came from Dr. Harold Bursztajn of the Harvard Medical School, co-founder of its Program in Psychiatry & the Law. He shared it with passion, animation, and even humor. The only time he became visibly upset is when he recounted how his father saved a woman from being transported to the east to face almost certain death at an extermination camp. The father argued that she also was a fecalist and thus served too valuable a role to send away.

The woman, pulled off the train minutes before it was scheduled to depart, was Harold’s mother.


Thank you to Harold Bursztajn and to his fellow panelists — Tessa Chelouche (Israel), Geoffrey Brahmer (Boston), and Jacob Holzer (Boston) — for their excellent presentations. This blog post could’ve gone on for pages, and I plan to write again about another of the presentations.


Go here for more about the history of the Łódź Ghetto.

From Boston to Berlin: Watching work and workers

The law and mental health conference that has brought me to Berlin starts in earnest on Monday. In the meantime, the trip from Boston to Berlin gave me an opportunity to observe work and workers.

Sharp customer service

Sometimes one business dealing is enough to predict whether a young person will have a successful career.

When I went to my bank to get some Euros for the trip, the customer service representative was totally on top of the transaction. She explained the exchange rate and fees, gave me some helpful travel tips about account security, and pointed out that I can avoid higher ATM fees in Germany by using the bank’s European partner.

As a sidebar, she saw from my account balances that I might qualify for a higher-yield money market account for some of my savings and without being pushy or overbearing, arranged for me to get information about that possibility.

Believe me, I’m not writing to tout Bank of America. But I did notice the kind of emotionally intelligent worker that employers should be tripping over themselves to hire.


Sometimes cultural differences manifest themselves in the most ordinary of ways. The Delta crew on the flight from NYC to Berlin was friendly, courteous, and efficient; it was about as painless a “red eye” flight as one can imagine.

By comparison, however, I couldn’t help thinking back to another work-related trip to Germany last year, when the entire Lufthansa flight crew — cockpit and cabin together — lined up at attention outside the gate before boarding the aircraft as a group. And they, too, provided excellent service.

Language privilege

Once you leave the U.S., you see the degree to which English has become a universal language. Workers in most major cities know enough English to help those who speak only English (i.e., most of us Americans) navigate a menu or complete a purchase. Today in Berlin, that extended all the way to a young woman working behind the counter at a fast-food restaurant.

That’s why I wince when I hear some Americans complaining about services in our country that are offered in languages in addition to English, typically in the way of ATM menus or customer service options over the phone. “This is America. They should speak American  English here!,” they bellow — while hinting that a bunch of foreigners are somehow taking over the country.

I’ve traveled internationally on various occasions since 1981. And I can attest that over the decades, everyday workers in many non-English speaking countries have done a helluva lot more to learn our language than we have of theirs. Those who fear world domination of someone else’s native tongue can rest easy.

Berlin cabbie

A first: A cab driver who asked me to roll up the window because the wind was messing up his well-coiffed hair. I found that very amusing.

Slow for a reason?

Don’t know whether this was due to the time of day, a sign of the economic times, or simply how Berliners spend their Sundays, but here in the heart of city, the restaurants early this evening were not doing landmark business. The modestly-priced Italian restaurant where I enjoyed a plate of spaghetti, located on a quiet square right off a main shopping boulevard, hosted only a handful of diners.

Nevertheless, I was reminded of how pleasant European city life can be, with plenty of establishments offering casual al fresco dining. An extended, hassle-free dinner, featuring people watching and a coffee at the end, is still very possible here on the Continent.

2011 Rule of Law Index: America needs to provide better access to its civil justice system

Here’s something to ponder for the 4th of July weekend: The World Justice Project’s 2011 Rule of Law Index concludes that the United States is among the nations in North America and Western Europe that need to improve access to their civil justice systems.

About the Index 

The World Justice Project describes itself as “a global, multidisciplinary initiative to strengthen the rule of law for the development of communities of opportunity and equity,” initiated by the American Bar Association and various global organizations.

Its second annual Rule of Law Index (pdf here) is a “quantitative assessment tool designed to offer a comprehensive picture of the extent to which countries adhere to the rule of law, not in theory, but in practice.” Written by Mark David Agrast, Juan Carlos Botero, and Alejandro Ponce, the 2011 Index is developed from public opinion surveys and input from legal experts in the respective countries.

Western Europe and North America

Because most readers of this blog are from the U.S., let’s center on the 2011 Index’s findings concerning the region of Western Europe and North America. The executive summary concludes:

Countries in Western Europe and North America tend to outperform most other countries in all dimensions. . . . The greatest weakness in Western Europe and North America appears to be related to the accessibility of the civil justice system, especially for marginalized segments of the population. . . . These are areas that require attention from both policy makers and civil society to ensure that all people are able to benefit from the civil justice system.

Americans, take note: “In most dimensions, countries in Western Europe obtain higher scores than the United States.”

Employment disputes in America

The 2011 Index results carry great significance for those seeking legal redress for wrongful termination, employment discrimination and violations of civil rights, and bullying and abuse at work. Here are what I see as some of the hot spots:

Despite America’s supposed overproduction of lawyers, obtaining affordable, quality legal assistance for civil claims can be a daunting task for all but the wealthy. Paying a lawyer by the billable hour can run up a huge tab very quickly. Those who opt for contingency fee arrangements — i.e., paying the lawyer a percentage of monies recovered in a successful lawsuit or settlement — often find themselves with little money left from the award even though they’ve “won.”

Furthermore, even with competent counsel, our systems for resolving employment disputes are costly and torturous for all parties, but especially for plaintiffs who must navigate bewildering administrative and court procedures in an attempt to secure justice. Frequently they must litigate their claims against a highly-paid team of lawyers representing their employer, the legal equivalent of a David vs. Goliath scenario.

Finally, the substance of our employment protections is lacking compared to many other nations. America — unlike many of its North American and European neighbors — adheres to the rule of at will employment, which means that workers can be terminated for any reason or no reason at all. Our labor union density is lower. We are well behind many other countries in fashioning legal protections against workplace bullying and abuse.

It is a shame — actually, shameful — that a nation founded on the rule of law is so stingy in granting legitimate access to its civil justice system for the vast share of its citizens. This is especially the case in employment disputes, where the stakes often implicate someone’s livelihood and career.


For a post about the 2010 Rule of Law Index, please go here.

I’ve expounded upon some of the ideas above in my law review article, “Human Dignity and American Employment Law,” which can be downloaded without charge, here.

Disclosure note: I was invited to serve as a Contributing Expert to the 2011 Rule of Law Index, which involved completing a lengthy survey on labor relations law & policy and the general state of the legal system in America.

The Lost Generation of the Great Recession

Not long ago, a bachelor’s degree was considered a ticket to the middle class and a shield against the worst blows of a difficult economy and a tough job market. Not anymore, or, at least, not right now.

We are looking at the specter of a Lost Generation of young adults who, through no fault of their own, are entering a labor market with a severe shortage of decent entry-level jobs.

Consider these three news analyses:

Recession’s impact on college grads

Chris Isidore, writing for CNNMoney.com (via Yahoo!, link here), reports on the brutal effects of the recession on newly-minted college graduates:

About 60% of recent graduates have not been able to find a full-time job in their chosen profession, according to job placement firm Adecco.


And the lack of steady income can also delay the start of their lives as independent adults. About a third of recent graduates are still living with their parents, Adecco found, with 17% saying they are financially dependent on their parents. Almost one in four say they are in debt.


…[T]hose already hurt by the recession might not bounce back so quickly.

According to one study performed by Till von Wachter, an economics professor at Columbia University, the drag on income lasts for 10 years, on average.

Is college worth it?

Catherine Rampell, writing for the New York Times (link here), revisits the recurring question of whether college is worth the time and expense:

Now evidence is emerging that the damage wrought by the sour economy is more widespread than just a few careers led astray or postponed. Even for college graduates — the people who were most protected from the slings and arrows of recession — the outlook is rather bleak.

Employment rates for new college graduates have fallen sharply in the last two years, as have starting salaries for those who can find work. What’s more, only half of the jobs landed by these new graduates even require a college degree, reviving debates about whether higher education is “worth it” after all.

The next huge bubble to burst?

Along with the scarcity of jobs, new graduates are leaving college with unprecedented levels of student loan debt. Sarah Jaffe, writing for AlterNet (link here), asks if student loan repayment default rates are the next bubble to burst:

Currently, private as well as government-issued and guaranteed loans will stick with you even through bankruptcy proceedings, saddling far too many graduates with debt for life.

Still, bankruptcy reform is hardly a solution to the problems at hand. Imagine 18 percent of college graduates declaring bankruptcy when they can’t find a job, upon graduation, that allows them to make payments on their loans?

Small wonder that many are calling the student loan crisis a bubble possibly worse than the credit card or housing bubbles.

We need a student movement

Jaffe and others aptly raise the need for student activism to provide the necessary political punch to address this burgeoning crisis.

I see no other alternative. Many Baby Boomers may have cut their teeth on political activism, but I do not see this generation rising to help; instead, too many of them are figuring out how to finance their retirements and health care. Instead, it will be up to the younger folks to stand up for themselves.


Related posts

A younger generation is doing a cost-benefit analysis on higher education

Young and jobless: A global crisis

Graduating into a recession

The Looming 21st Century Generation Gap: Economic Challenges Facing Younger Workers

What policy objectives should workplace bullying legislation advance?

With growing discussion about the enactment of workplace bullying legislation occurring both in the U.S. and in other nations, it is fitting to identify some of the broad objectives that any such law should be designed to further.

When I was drafting the Healthy Workplace Bill, I identified a cluster of public policy goals that should inform the substance of an anti-bullying law. These four figured most prominently:


Prevention is the most important goal. The law should encourage employers to use preventive measures to reduce the likelihood of workplace bullying. These include developing and enforcing policies, educating employees, and supporting a workplace culture that values employee dignity. If bullying is prevented, then workers and employers alike will benefit, and all stakeholders are spared burdensome litigation.

Relief to targets

The legal system should provide a means of relief to targets who are subjected to severely abusive treatment. This should include monetary damages, mental health counseling, and, where applicable, reinstatement to the target’s original position.

Prompt and fair resolution

The law should encourage prompt resolution of bullying disputes, with procedures designed to be fair to all parties, and with strong protections against retaliation for workers who report instances of bullying.


Finally, bullies and employers who enable them should be held responsible for their actions. This will have a deterrent effect and further encourage the use of preventive measures to discourage bullying behavior.


I believe this is a good starting place for considering the role of the law in responding to workplace bullying. These policy objectives have been well-received by commentators around the world, ranging from scholars in fields such as law and industrial psychology, to the World Health Organization (see below for link).


For a free pdf copy of the World Health Organization’s publication Raising Awareness of Psychological Harassment at Work, go here.

My three major law review articles on workplace bullying and the law extensively discuss the public policy objectives and implications of workplace bullying legislation, including the Healthy Workplace Bill. They can be downloaded without charge by clicking the titles:

The Phenomenon of ‘Workplace Bullying’ and the Need for Status-Blind Hostile Work Environment Protection– Georgetown Law Journal, 2000

Crafting a Legislative Response to Workplace Bullying– Employee Rights and Employment Policy Journal, 2004

Workplace Bullying and American Employment Law: A Ten-Year Progress Report and Assessment – Comparative Labor Law & Policy Journal, 2010


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