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Commentary: Biden’s Record At Odds With Much Of His Rural Plan



Presidential candidate Joe Biden leaves a Pittsburgh campaign rally in April 2019. Photo: Paris Malone/Flickr. Creative Commons

Joe Biden joins two other Democratic candidates in releasing a platform outlining his rural policy proposals. But Biden’s rural plan seems inconsistent with many of his votes in his 36-year Senate career.

Voters following the 2020 Democratic presidential primary race should be pleased that Joe Biden has joined Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) and Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) in putting out a rural plan that outlines the former vice president’s policy priorities for rural America.

Much of the white paper focuses on rural health care, and here Biden won’t face the flak that Hillary Clinton had to deal with in her White House bids over a 2003 vote on rural Medicare payments. Clinton was one of only 12 senators to oppose an amendment that increased payments to providers in rural areas, bringing them in line with those in urban areas. This amendment was pushed by Iowa Republican Senator Chuck Grassley. Biden’s embrace of renewable fuels will also spare him the wrath that Clinton endured for four key anti-ethanol and biofuels votes she cast between 2002-2005.

However, on the lead section where Biden proposes to “fundamentally revitalize rural economies,” the Delawarean is going to face many questions of how he squares his long Senate record on these issues with the goals for American agriculture he would pursue as president.

On trade, Biden pledges to “stand up to China” but offers no specifics on how he would do that other than enlisting American allies. As vice president, Biden never publicly backed New York Senator Chuck Schumer’s numerous pleas to President Obama to have the Treasury Department label China a currency manipulator. And during the 1990s, as senator, Biden repeatedly voted to support Most Favored Nation status for China in 199119921997 and finally the most critical vote in 2000 that made MFN permanent and allowed China into the World Trade Organization.

The ramifications of the China trade policy Biden backed have been profound and as the Economic Policy Institute has found, not in a good way. Our trade deficit skyrocketed and the U.S. lost 3.2 million jobs between 2001-2013. In fact, according to EPI’s data, some of the congressional districts hit hardest by job losses are heavily rural, such as Minnesota-1 (68 percent rural), New Hampshire-2 (57 percent rural), and South Carolina-3 (40 percent rural). So far, the loss of Chinese export markets for American farm products does not seem to be costing President Trump political support with his base, and if Biden is the Democratic nominee you can imagine the attack ads that Trump will unleash on him over this issue alone.

A screenshot of Biden’s rural policy plan, which was released July 17, 2019.

Biden is also smart to call for more investment in agricultural research at our land-grant colleges and universities. Such research has been falling for the last 15 years. He also says we must ensure that research is done for the public interest rather than on behalf of corporate special interests. But here again, Biden’s Senate past is going to come back to bite him.  In November 1980, in a lame-duck session, the Senate passed a bill authored by Senator Birch Bayh (D-Indiana) and Senator Robert Dole (R-Kansas) to overhaul the patent and trademark statutes. One of the key provisions encouraged the private sector (agribusiness firms) to partner with the land-grants in agricultural research projects. Bayh-Dole, which was crafted in the Senate Judiciary Committee, on which Biden served, was passed by voice vote, but it incorporated S. 414 which Biden voted for back in April 1980. Speaking on the Senate floor in making the argument for his legislation, Bayh said, “This new policy will make federally supported research and development more productive by allowing the private sector to develop many inventions now left gathering dust on the shelves of government agencies.”

One of the areas of ag research that took off in the 1980s was plant breeding and the development of genetically modified crops. In his white paper, Biden says that “these new technologies and the next new seeds – should be developed and owned by the American people, not private companies who can use patents to expand profits.” As this study found, corporate agribusiness influence over ag research at public higher education institutions is rampant, with companies buying seats on university advisory boards, funding buildings, labs and whole academic departments at ag schools. DuPont, perhaps Delaware’s best-known corporation, helped shell out $1.2 million between 2006-2010 to fund a plant pathology professor’s work at Iowa State University. And DuPont, which gave Biden $58,200 in campaign contributions just between 1989-2010, plays hardball with farmers on enforcement of its seed patents. A key provision of Bayh-Dole is “march-in rights,” which allow the funding agency, on its own initiative or at the request of a third party, to effectively ignore the exclusivity of a patent awarded under the act and grant additional licenses to other “reasonable applicants.” However, no federal agency has ever exercised its power to march in and license patent rights to others. Biden’s rural plan is silent on the issue of how he would liberalize the criteria used to invoke march-in rights.

Biden is right to call for funding of conservation tools like the Conservation Stewardship Program that can allow farmers to fight climate change through carbon capture and sequestration practices. He advocates for full funding, but once again, his Senate tenure is going to trip him up. After passage of the 2002 Farm Bill, Congress chopped more than $3 billion from conservation programs to the point whereby 2005, three out of four farmers were rejected when they sought funding assistance from USDA. In 2005, the Senate budget reconciliation bill proposed slashing farm conservation programs by more than $1 billion. So, to help restore the funding, Senator Grassley and Senator Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota), offered an amendment to cap farm subsidies at $250,000 a year and transfer the savings to conservation programs run by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. But opponents of the Grassley-Dorgan amendment raised a point of order against the amendment, arguing that it was not appropriate for a budget reconciliation bill. Grassley moved to overturn the point of order and then-Senator Biden voted against it, helping to kill it.

Like some of his fellow candidates, Biden wants to strengthen antitrust enforcement in the ag sector on inputs such as seeds and in markets where producers face ever-limited options for sales and fair prices for their crops and livestock. During debate on the 2007 Farm Bill, Senator Jon Tester (D-Montana) sponsored an amendment to modify the provisions relating to unlawful practices under the Packers and Stockyards Act of 1921, which prohibits meatpackers from engaging in any course of business or doing any act for the purposes or with the effect of manipulating or controlling prices. Congress enacted this when it was determined that the Sherman Act, the Clayton Act and the Federal Trade Commission Act were all insufficient to promote competitive markets. Tester’s amendment sought to reverse a 2005 decision by a three-judge panel that gutted the Packers and Stockyards Act by reinstating the law’s ability to ensure free-market competition in the marketplace. Biden took a walk and did not vote on the amendment, which failed by five votes to receive a three-fifths majority needed for passage.

Back in 2002, Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) authored an amendment to the Senate Farm Bill on contract producer rights to apply provisions of the Packers and Stockyards Act to livestock production contracts and allow parties with production contracts the right to discuss contract terms with certain individuals. Biden was one of only 14 senators to vote against the amendment. One explanation for these votes is that they were opposed by the big meat and poultry companies like Perdue Farms. Perdue, based in Salisbury, Maryland, was a major force behind the vertical integration of the broiler industry during the 1970s. The industry has come to dominate agriculture on the Delmarva peninsula, which encompasses Delaware. Under poultry giants like Perdue and Tyson Foods, contract growers are treated like serfs on their own farms with virtually no say or power in how to run their livestock operations. Between 1996-2008, Perdue Farms shelled out $15,000 in campaign cash to Biden, which ain’t chicken feed.

In 1999, Biden voted against an amendment by Senator Paul Wellstone (D-Minnesota) that sought to impose a moratorium on mergers and acquisitions between any agribusiness company whose total assets were more than $100 million with an agribusiness company whose assets were more than $10 million for 18 months or until Congress enacted legislation addressing the problem of market concentration in the agriculture sector, whichever came first. The amendment also would have established a commission to review such mergers and make legislative recommendations. A year later, Biden voted for a Republican motion to table (kill) another Wellstone amendment to provide increased funding for the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA) for investigations of anticompetitive behavior, rapid response teams, the Hog Contract Library, examinations of the competitive structure of the poultry industry, civil rights activities, and information staff, with an offset. Voting against measures sponsored by rural champions and family farm heroes like Harkin and Wellstone is very likely to cost Biden support in the Iowa caucuses. Even as vice president, Biden expended no political capital in trying to move USDA and the Justice Department to push their GIPSA reform effort to a successful conclusion. After Republicans captured the U.S. House in 2010, they used the appropriations process to cripple the Obama GIPSA reforms through riders in the USDA spending bills.

The upshot of this legislative record is that Biden risks becoming the 2020 Democratic version of Bob Dole’s 1996 presidential candidacy, which afforded the Clinton-Gore re-election campaign the ability to use Dole’s thousands of Senate votes against him. Biden’s 36 years of Senate roll calls offer his Democratic primary opponents and Trump a virtual smorgasbord of opportunities to attack him mercilessly. The first three states to cast ballots — Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina – are the nation’s 14th, 11th and 13thmost-rural states, so Biden’s ideas and record on issues of concern to rural voters will receive a good test in these primary contests.

This article was originally published by the Daily Yonder.

Matt L. Barron is a rural strategist and runs MLB Research Associates.


Commentary: Immunizing Against Our Culture of Contempt



In his first inaugural address in March of 1861, Abraham Lincoln said, "We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies," and he invoked "the better angels of our nature." Photo: Wikipedia

Today’s public discourse is a petri dish for breeding disgust for people with whom we disagree. Debates about healthcare issues affecting rural America are no exception.

From the left’s “basket of deplorables” to the right’s “send her back,” our public and private spaces have become infected with a culture of contempt. On too many days, I feel I am in a country I barely recognize. I don’t know if conservatives and liberals equally engage in contempt of the other, only that I hear too much of it from both sides.

Tim Size

I take little comfort when individuals say it’s not so bad, that we were more divided during the Civil War. As savage as those days were, Abraham Lincoln knew we could and must do better.

“Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Even while coming of age in the riot-torn ’60s, my evangelically conservative family would encourage me “to hate the sin but love the sinner.” And not dissimilarly, at the same time, the left made an icon of a Vietnam War protestor placing a carnation into the barrel of a soldier’s rifle.

From Fox News to MSNBC, our airwaves are filled with voices competing to be the loudest and the most adept at ridiculing their opponents. The dominant narrative is not to address ideas but to reduce those with whom who we don’t agree to a position beneath contempt. Once we allow ourselves to hold someone in contempt, all that the best of our culture teaches us about how we are to relate and support each other goes out the window.

I have taken heart from individuals who have begun to name this problem and suggest solutions, such as Arthur Brooks, long-time president of a conservative think tank, as he wrote about “Our Culture of Contempt” in a recent issue of The New York Times: “What we need is not to disagree less, but to disagree better. And that starts when you turn away the rhetorical dope peddlers–the powerful people on your own side who are profiting from the culture of contempt. As satisfying as it can feel to hear that your foes are irredeemable, stupid and deviant, remember: When you find yourself hating something, someone is making money or winning elections or getting more famous and powerful.”

If we are to reverse our country’s slide into increasingly entrenched and divided camps, we need to relearn how to productively talk about our differences instead of attacking the character, motive and personal attributes of the “other side.”

Brooks goes on to say that “each of us can make a commitment never to treat others with contempt, even if we believe they deserve it. This might sound like a call for magnanimity, but it is just as much an appeal to self-interest. Contempt makes persuasion impossible – no one has ever been hated into agreement–so its expression is either petty self-indulgence or cheap virtue signaling, neither of which wins converts.”

For those of us working in health care, contempt is not theoretical. We seem increasingly less able to make progress on important issues as the rhetoric heats up and the attacks get more personal. Here are a few examples of current health care issues that seem too often to be dominated by attacks on those who hold an opposing opinion rather than the opinion itself.

  • Advanced Practice Registered Nurse Collaboration
  • Family Planning
  • Federal Dollars for Medicaid Expansion
  • Medicare for All
  • Race and Geography in Health Disparities
  • Vaccination and Anti-vaxxers

While I know that I have and still can readily discount those who disagree with me on each of these issues, I have renewed my commitment to keep my advocacy based on the facts and our organization’s aspirations, not on trying to tear down those who might disagree. Will you join me in this quest?

Tim Size is executive director of the Rural Wisconsin Health Cooperative.

This article was originally published by the Daily Yonder.

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How Organized Labor Can Reverse Decades of Decline



A union miner at the rally for pension protection. Photo: Aaron Payne, Ohio Valley ReSource

Collective bargaining has long been one of organized labor’s most attractive selling points.

In its simplest form, collective bargaining involves an organized body of employees negotiating wages and other conditions of employment. In other words, unions are saying: Join us, and we’ll bargain with your boss for better pay.

Unfortunately, traditional collective bargaining is no longer an effective strategy for labor union growth. That’s because employers and many states have made it incredibly hard for workers to form a union, which is necessary for workers to bargain collectively.

My own research suggests unions should pursue alternative ways to organize, such as by focusing on more forceful worker advocacy and offering benefits like health care. Doing so would help unions swell in size, putting them in a stronger position to secure and defend the collective bargaining rights that helped build America’s middle class.

Why unions still matter

Unions reached their pinnacle in the mid-1950s when a third of American workers belonged to one. Today, that figure stands at just 10.5 percent.

A big part of the problem is that employers have used heavy-handed legal and managerial tactics to block organizing and the elections necessary to form a union. And more than half of U.S. states have passed so-called right to work laws, which allow workers at a unionized company to avoid paying dues.

The stakes of this challenge are high – not just for unions but for most workers in the U.S. That’s because weaker unions correlate with lower wages, reduced benefits and greater economic inequality.

Millions stand to gain from a strengthened labor movement, from Uber and Lyft drivers in the gig economy to low-wage employees in retail and hospitality. And surveys show nearly half of nonunion workers in the U.S. say they would join one if they could.

I believe there are three models traditional unions could pursue to add members without relying on workplace certification and collective bargaining.

Advocating for workers

One approach is to build on the success of worker advocacy groups like Fight for $15 and the National Domestic Workers Alliance.

Fight for $15, for example, played a leading role advocating increases in the minimum wage in several states, most recently Connecticut, while the National Domestic Workers Alliance helped secure the passage of the domestic workers bill of rights in New York.

What they all have in common is that they engage in protests and strikes to call public attention to the plight of exploited workers while advocating for economic and social justice. Unions, which used to engage in more of this kind of activism, need to recapture some of that militant spirit.

Establishing minimum standards

A second model involves pushing employers to agree to a minimum set of standards for benefits and pay to provide workers.

The Writers Guild of America, which represent screenwriters and others in television, theater and Hollywood, exemplify this model. For example, they establish minimum levels of compensation for specific jobs and duties and then require members – both employers and workers – to adhere to them. It’s a collective bargaining agreement with a potentially much wider reach.

That’s because these agreements are negotiated with employers but also cover independent contractors who sign on as well. Their strength comes from the aggressive organizing and advocacy plus the strategic importance of the workers they represent, which puts pressure on employers to take part and meet the minimum standards.

Other unions could expand this approach to encourage workers throughout industries that have little or no labor representation to join their ranks as affiliated members, which should pressure employers to follow suit.

Unions peaked in the 1950s. Photo: AP Photo/Sam Myers

Unions with benefits

Another approach involves focusing on offering special benefits to independent workers in exchange for fees.

Some labor groups already do this, but the workers would benefit from unions combining their collective power to offer more heavily discounted goods and services, such as health care, disability benefits and legal representation.

For example, although the 375,000-strong Freelancers Union can’t negotiate over pay, it offers independent contractors these sorts of discounted benefits. Instead of charging dues, it charges fees for its benefits, essentially operating as its own insurance company. It also advocates for public policy changes that safeguard freelancers from exploitation, such as New York’s Freelance Wage Protection Act of 2010.

This model is probably the approach most likely to succeed in attracting large numbers of new members. The growing gig economy and low-wage industries like fast food are two areas that could receive benefits from these types of collective entities.

The endgame

Ideally, unions would embrace all three of these models, offering discounted benefits to any worker interested in signing on, fighting for minimum standards across industries and putting worker advocacy front and center. By broadening the ways in which workers can join and what they offer, unions will become stronger and closer to the people and communities that they are meant to represent.

But by no means are these models meant to supplant organized labor’s traditional collective bargaining role. My point is that unions should break the straightjacket fixation on traditional bargaining and use alternative models as intermediate steps to the ultimate goal of unionizing more workplaces in order to negotiate collective bargaining agreements on behalf of workers.

To get there, though, unions must mobilize a critical mass of workers. Only then will they break the dynamic of labor’s decline.

[ Deep knowledge, daily. Sign up for The Conversation’s newsletter. ]

Marick Masters, Professor of Business and Adjunct Professor of Political Science, Wayne State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Why Do So Many Rural Americans Feel Politics is Pointless?



Of Jennifer Silva’s sample of 108 working-class people, over two-thirds didn’t even vote in the 2016 election. Photo: AP Photo/Keith Srakocic

In sociologist Jennifer Silva’s first book, “Coming Up Short,” she interviewed working-class young adults in Lowell, Mass., and Richmond, Virginia.

Most had a tough time earning decent wages. Many felt like they were in a perpetual state of limbo, unable to reach the traditional markers of adulthood: job, marriage, house and kids. But Silva was surprised to learn that many blamed themselves for their situations and believed that relying on others could only result in disappointment.

After the book was published, it bothered Silva that she never pressed her subjects further on their politics to see how they might be connected to their worldview.

Jennifer Silva. Bucknell

Now, in a new book, “We’re Still Here: Pain and Politics in the Heart of America,” she has made working-class politics her focus.

Beginning in May 2015, Silva started conducting interviews in a once-thriving coal town in central Pennsylvania, which she calls “Coal Brook.” The timing was prescient: A month after she began her research, Donald Trump descended the escalator at Trump Tower and announced his candidacy for president.

Silva spent over a year interviewing townspeople. She gained their trust, forged relationships and spent time in their homes and at community meetings. After years of declining prospects under both political parties, some of the townspeople she interviewed were drawn to Trump’s anti-establishment message. But for most, their politics had devolved into an abyss of cynicism that couldn’t even be penetrated by a politician who promised to “fix” everything.

In an interview, which has been edited for length and clarity, Silva describes a community that is racially diverse, hardworking and politically aware. But its residents are also deeply distrustful and shoulder immense amounts of pain and alienation.

Can you talk a little bit about what inspired you to study working-class Americans?

I was the first person in my family to graduate from college, and I experienced some self-doubt and discomfort when I tried to integrate into the world of academia.

In my position between two worlds – growing up with more working-class roots, and then building a professional middle-class life – I would cringe whenever I saw upper-middle-class people treat working-class people with casual condescension or indifference. It sometimes seemed like the very colleagues who most loudly proclaimed their commitment to social justice were the ones treating the administrative assistant like their personal secretary or complaining about the cost of their housekeeper. It made me really skeptical of whether people’s stated political beliefs were even a good predictor of how they treat people with less power and status.

What was the hardest part of the research?

Getting people to open up to me. I wasn’t from the area. This is the kind of place where if you knock on someone’s door, they’re not going to let you in. I started off talking to white people. I’d go to football games and addiction meetings to try to meet people, and I was able to get to be known as “so-and-so’s friend.” Then I realized I wanted to have a non-white group in my book, because there’s been an increase in Latino and black people in the area. So I had to find out how to get this population to trust me because the white population and the minority population don’t overlap very much.

You spent months conducting interviews. Then the election happened, and Trump won. All of a sudden, there was a lot of interest in the very sort of community you had just spent time in. What’s your take on the ensuing media coverage of these small towns?

It seemed like there was one dominant story: older white men, angry and in pain, were feeling bad about not having jobs and blaming racial minorities or foreigners.

And an element of that certainly emerged in my research. But the overall picture was just so much more complex. One of the things that was very striking to me was how much distrust there was. Among everyone I interviewed – white, Latino and black – there was a fierce distrust and hatred of politicians, a suspicion that politicians and big business were basically working together to take away the American Dream. Everyone was very critical of inequality.

So it wasn’t this idea of “dumb white people voting for billionaires because they don’t understand it’s against their interests.” Almost everyone was aware that the system is rigged against poor people. They blamed politicians for refusing to raise wages to a level people can live on. Many wanted higher taxes to support education. I heard a lot of that, across all of the different groups, and I didn’t read a lot of that in the articles about these communities.

You interviewed 108 people and only 37 of them actually voted, with 26 voting for Trump. Of the 41 black or Latino people you spoke with, only four voted. So to me, one of the major stories wasn’t necessarily support for Trump. It was a refusal to participate in politics altogether.

Two-thirds of the sample were nonvoters. They knew the election was happening but they just viewed political participation as pointless. They thought of it as a joke. And they said, “Look at what’s happened in my lifetime, it doesn’t really matter who’s been president.”

One of the critiques I heard a lot was that everything’s about money now. If you have money, your life is good. You can buy anything. But if you don’t have money, the system is stacked against you. I heard that from old white men. I heard that from young black women. And it was interesting, because it’s not untrue, right? If you kill someone and you’re rich you’re more likely to get off.

So I think for them it was almost like, “Well, if we participate, we’re just playing along and pretending. But we’re not naive. We know already that politicians are bought off by corporations. No one actually cares about us.”

There’s that great story in the book where you showed up to an interview wearing your “I voted” sticker.

He laughed at me! Like, “Why would you vote? Are you crazy?”

And yet of those who voted, Trump did emerge as the clear favorite.

Well, Trump and Bernie Sanders. But Sanders wasn’t an option in the end. The general take on Trump was, “We like Trump’s personality, we like his aggressiveness, we like how he doesn’t care about the rules.” And then they liked Bernie Sanders for his authenticity and his heart. But for many who even ended up voting for Trump, they still didn’t think it would matter if they voted.

Where does this disillusionment come from?

There’s a sense of betrayal by a number of social institutions – education, the workplace, the military – all of these things that they thought they could trust, but, for one reason or another, ended up disappointing them.

So they turned inward. No one was really looking for external collective strategies changing the world. Many wanted to simply prove that they didn’t have to rely on other people. There was this sense that any kind of redemption is only going to come out of your own efforts. And then you’ll see some blame other people who don’t seem to support themselves.

Before and after the 2016 election, J.D. Vance, with the publication of his memoir, “Hillbilly Elegy,” was held up in the mainstream media as an oracle for dispossessed rural Americans. But in your book, you vehemently disagree with his worldview.

Vance seemed to look at other people in his community and think that the reason they were suffering was because of their own choices – that they weren’t really strong enough to face the truth about themselves, that they had to stop blaming the government and corporations and actually take responsibility.

And that just wasn’t the story that I heard. I heard a lot of self-blame and a lot of people who wanted to take responsibility for their own fate. There was a lot of soul searching and a lot of pain. Vance makes it seem like everyone just needs to be like him – a lone hero who escapes his difficult past on his own. It’s not that simple or easy.

Can the pain people feel be used as a bridge to bring people together? That’s how I end my book. And I saw signs of it. Families suffering from addiction were coming together and wondering, how can we change the ways that doctors prescribe medicine? Or how can we challenge pharmaceutical companies to stop making these medications that get our children addicted? Can we get the police to help addicts instead of arresting them?

That sounds like the stirrings of political mobilization. But what’s the biggest obstacle that’s preventing working-class voters from organizing en masse?

I think that it’s the absence of what you could call “mediating institutions.” The people in my book have a lot of critical and smart ideas. But they don’t have a lot of ways to actually connect their individual voices. So they don’t have a church group or a club that they would join that would then give them political tools or a louder voice. And I don’t even know if they would join one if these did exist, because of their distrust of institutions. So it just ends up being turned inward rather than outward.

Within academia, what are some of the most common misconceptions you encounter when it comes to working-class politics?

I have heard some liberal academics talk about how self-defeating and misinformed working-class white people are. They seem to believe that if these people just knew the facts, they would change their votes immediately. Or they dismiss all working-class white people as angry and racist.

The working-class people I met were often radically critical of inequality and deeply skeptical about whether we live in a meritocracy. It was important to me to show that the people in my book of all races are creative and thoughtful – that they arrive at their positions by piecing together their histories and experiences in meaningful ways.

Sometimes these ways are destructive and divisive, and sometimes they have the potential to be transformative and healing.

[You’re smart and curious about the world. So are The Conversation’s authors and editors. You can read us daily by subscribing to our newsletter.]

Nick Lehr, Arts + Culture Editor, The Conversation

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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100 Days