The Case for a Universal Basic Income in the Time of COVID-19

The idea of Universal Basic Income (UBI) has been the subject of much debate in the past few years. The candidacy of Andrew Yang for U.S. President brought the issue to national prominence, where it has remained during the spread of COVID-19. What is UBI? Put simply, it proposes that the government give every citizen a certain amount of money each month to cover, at the least, basic living expenses. As the video above by YouTube channel Kurzgesagt explains, those citizens are then free to live their lives as they like.

Unlike most welfare state models, UBI usually does not involve any means testing. In most schemes, every citizen, no matter their current wealth or income, receives the benefit. (Though most studies of the program have only given it to poor or unemployed beneficiaries.) Those who do not need the money can do whatever they want with it, but so too can those who need it. UBI ensures that people do not have go homeless or hungry if they lose their livelihood, and that they can survive without paternalist state agencies breathing down their necks.




UBI is not a new idea but dates back at least to Thomas Paine, whose Common Sense inspired the American Revolution and whose Rights of Man defended the French a few years later. As Paine argued in another, little-read, pamphlet, Agrarian Justice, no one could be truly free if they had no means of subsistence. Since capitalism had placed most of those means under private ownership, he reasoned, citizens should be compensated for being deprived of resources that belonged to them by natural right as much as to anyone else.

This philosophical justification doesn’t always enter into the conversation, which is often framed in more pragmatic terms as a political and economic expedient in times of capitalist crisis: in times, for example, like the present moment. The COVID-19 crisis has intensified calls for a UBI, as millions of layoffs point toward the inevitability of a depression. Pushing people back to work during the pandemic seems to be the only thing the U.S. government plans to do, but no amount of coercion can stop the virus from forcing closures all over again.

Even the famously libertarian economist Milton Friedman once embraced a version of UBI—as an alternative to the liberal social programs he loathed. Under Richard Nixon, of all people, such a policy almost came into being in 1969. Neither Friedman nor Nixon believed in the natural right of all citizens to a share in the profits of a state's natural resources. But they could see the wisdom of ensuring millions of U.S. citizens weren't relegated to living in destitution.

The program required testing, so the administration set up a trial run. “Tens of millions of dollars were budgeted to provide a basic income for more than 8,500 Americans” in five states across the country, writes Rutger Bregman at The Correspondent. Researchers wanted to know: 1. if those who received a basic income would work significantly less, 2. if the program would be too expensive, and 3. if it would prove “politically unfeasible.” The findings? “No, no, and maybe.”

The chief objection, idleness, held no water. As the chief data analyst for the Denver experiment put it at the time, “The ‘laziness’ contention is just not supported by our findings.” The two groups who did cut back on hours, 20-somethings and mothers of young children, were people who most needed the money so they could go to college or devote time to their kids. Otherwise, recipients did not quit their jobs and lay around watching TV.

Yet there remains a powerful species of human busybody who cannot rest until they’re sure everyone’s working. Such people continue to object—whether in good faith or not—that “just giving people money” will turn everyone into a slacker, as though most people were only motivated by the threat of starvation. And so, trials continue decades later. Researchers at the University of Helsinki recently conducted a two-year study in Finland with a random selection of 2,000 unemployed people across the country. Each participant was given €560 (about $607) a month to ease their burden, and received the funds whether or not they sought or found a job.

“The scheme was not strictly speaking a universal basic income trial because the recipients came from a restricted group and the payments were not enough to live on,” points out Guardian correspondent Jon Henley. Nonetheless, the researchers found that recipients were significantly less stressed than a control group—and that they could make different choices than they might otherwise. “Some said the basic income allowed them to go back to the life they had before they became unemployed,” the study authors write. “While others said it gave them the power to say no to low-paid insecure jobs, and thus increased their sense of autonomy.”

Other findings also showed how UBI could radicalize our relationship to work. “Freelancers and artists and entrepreneurs had more positive views on the effects of the basic income, which some felt had created opportunities for them to start businesses.” People providing unpaid care for others felt their time was more valued. “The security of the basic income allowed them to do more meaningful things, as they felt it legitimized this kind of care work.” The findings are being taken seriously by many European governments.

In Spain, Scotland, and elsewhere, leaders are proposing or considering some form of UBI to combat massive unemployment due to the pandemic. While the idea may have little political future in the U.S. at the moment, where priorities are to use the country’s wealth to further enrich the wealthy, UBI is becoming tremendously popular elsewhere. (A recent poll found support among 71% of Europeans surveyed.) No one believes UBI is a panacea for the world's ills, but as the Wired video above argues, there may be no better time than now to make the case for it.

Related Content:

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To Save Civilization, the Rich Need to Pay Their Taxes: Historian Rutger Bregman Speaks Truth to Power at Davos and to Fox’s Tucker Carlson

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Watch 21 Animated Ideas from Big Thinkers: Steven Pinker, Carol Dweck, Philip Zimbardo, David Harvey & More

The Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, better known as the Royal Society for the Arts, and best known simply as the RSA, was founded in 1754. At the time, nobody could have imagined a world in which the people of every land, no matter how far-flung, could hear the same talks by well-known scholars and speakers, let alone see them animated as if on a conference-room whiteboard. Yet even back then, in an era before the invention of animation and whiteboards, let alone computers and the internet, people had an appetite for strong, often counterintuitive or even contrarian ideas to diagnose and potentially even solve social problems — an appetite for which the RSA Animate series of videos was made.

We can't understand what goes right and what goes wrong in our societies without understanding how we think. To that end the RSA has commissioned animated videos based on talks by psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist on our "divided brain," former political strategist (and current RSA Chief Executive) Matthew Taylor on how our left and right brains shape our politics, psychologist Steven Pinker on language as a window into human nature, philosopher-sociologist Renata Salecl on the paradoxical downside of choice, psychologist Philip Zimbardo on our perception of time, "social and ethical prophet" Jeremy Rifkin on empathy, philosopher Roman Krznaric on "outrospection," journalist Barbara Ehrenreich on "the darker side of positive thinking," and behavioral-economics researcher Dan Ariely on drive and dishonesty.

Economics is another field that has provided the RSA with a surfeit of animatable material — even of the kind "economists don’t want you to see," as the RSA promotes economist Ha-joon Chang's talk on "why every single person can and SHOULD get their head around basic economics" and "how easily economic myths and assumptions become gospel."




Freakonomics co-authors Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner make an appearance to break down altruism, and "economic geographer" David Harvey attempts to envision a system beyond capitalism. And on the parts of the intellectual map where economics overlaps politics, the RSA brings us figures like Slavoj Žižek, who "investigates the surprising ethical implications of charitable giving."

As, in essence, an educational enterprise, RSA Animate videos also look into new ways to think about education itself. Educationalist Carol Dweck examines the issues of "why kids say they’re bored at school, or why they stop trying when the work gets harder" by looking at what kind of praise helps young students, and what kind harms them.

Education and creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson explains the need to change our very paradigms of education. And according to the RSA's speakers, those aren't the only paradigms we should change: Microsoft Chief Envisioning Officer Dave Coplin argues that we should re-imagine work, and technology critic Evgeny Morozov argues that we should rethink the "cyber-utopianism" that has exposed harmful side-effects of our digital world.

httvs://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDZFcDGpL4U&list=PL39BF9545D740ECFF&index=11&t=0s

But it is in this world that the RSA promotes "21st-century enlightenment," a concept further explored in another talk by Matthew Taylor — and one of which you can get a few doses, ten minutes at a time, on the full RSA Animate Youtube playlist. Watch the complete playlist of 21 videos, from start to finish, below.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

An Animated Michael Sandel Explains How Meritocracy Degrades Our Democracy

Imagine if governments and institutions took their policy directives straight from George Orwell’s 1984 or Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.” We might veer distressingly close to many a literary dystopia in these times, with duckspeak taking over all the discourse. But some lines—bans on thinking or non-procreative sex, or seriously proposing to eat babies—have not yet been crossed.

When it comes, however, to meritocracy—a term that originated in a 1958 satirical dystopian novel by British sociologist Michael Young—it can seem as if the political class had taken fiction as manifesto. Young himself wrote in 2001, “much that was predicted has already come about. It is highly unlikely the prime minister has read the book, but he has caught on to the word without realizing the dangers of what he is advocating.”




In Young's historical analysis, what began as an allegedly democratic impulse, a means of breaking up hereditary castes, became itself a way to solidify and entrench a ruling hierarchy. “The new class has the means at hand,” wrote Young, “and largely under its control, by which it reproduces itself.” (Wealthy people bribing their children's way into elite institutions comes to mind.) Equal opportunity for those who work hard and play by the rules doesn’t actually obtain in the real world, meritocracy's critics demonstrate—prominent among them the man who coined the term “meritocracy.”

One problem, as Harvard’s Michael Sandel frames it in the short RSA animated video above, is an ancient one, characterized by a very ancient word. “Meritocratic hubris,” he says, “the tendency of winners to inhale too deeply of their success,” causes them to “forget the luck and good fortune that helped them on their way.” Accidents of birth are ignored in a hyper-individualist ideology that insists on narcissistic notions of self-made people and a just world (for them).

“The smug conviction that those on the top deserve their fate” comes with its inevitable corollary—“those on the bottom deserve theirs too,” no matter the historical, political, and economic circumstances beyond their control, and no matter how hard they might work or how talented they may be. Meritocracy obviates the idea, Sandel says, that “there but for the grace of God or accidents of fortune go I,” which promoted a healthy degree of humility and an acceptance of life's contingency.

Sandel sees meritocratic attitudes as corrosive to democracy, describing their effects in his upcoming book The Tyranny of Merit. Yale Law Professor Daniel Markovits, another ivy league academic and heir to Michael Young's critique, has also just released a book (The Meritocracy Trap) decrying meritocracy. He describes the system as a “trap” in which “upward mobility has become a fantasy, and the embattled middle classes are now more likely to sink into the working poor than to rise into the professional elite.”

Markovitz, who holds two degrees from Yale and a doctorate from Oxford, admits at The Atlantic that most of his students “unnervingly resemble my younger self: They are, overwhelmingly, products of professional parents and high-class universities.” Once an advocate of the idea of meritocracy as a democratic force, he now argues that its promises “exclude everyone outside of a narrow elite…. Hardworking outsiders no longer enjoy genuine opportunity.”

According to Michael Young, meritocracy’s tireless first critic and theorist (he adapted his satire from his 1955 dissertation), “those judged to have merit of a particular kind,” whether they truly have it or not, always had the potential, as he wrote in The Guardian, to “harden into a new social class without room in it for others.” A class that further dispossessed and disempowered those viewed as losers in the endless rounds of competition for social worth.

Young died in 2002. We can only imagine what he would have made of the exponential extremes of inequality in 2019. A utopian socialist and tireless educator, he also became an MP in the House of Lords and a baron in 1978. Perhaps his new position gave him further vantage to see how “with the coming of the meritocracy, the now leaderless masses were partially disfranchised; a time has gone by, more and more of them have been disengaged, and disaffected to the extent of not even bothering to vote. They no longer have their own people to represent them.”

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Economics 101: Hedge Fund Investor Ray Dalio Explains How the Economy Works in a 30-Minute Animated Video

Want to know how the economy works? It “works like a simple machine," according to Ray Dalio, who explains its mechanisms in the 30-minute video above. The presentation is “simple but not simplistic,” says the site Economic Principles, a research arm of Dalio’s company Bridgewater Associates. The lesson packs in most of the major boldfaced concepts in the average overpriced college economics textbook, “such as credit, interest, rates, leveraging, and deleveraging.” And it does so in that most engaging means of learning things online, an animated video, narrated by an expert.

All that’s well and good, but can we really understand such a volatile beast as “the economy”—an abstraction that sometimes seems like a cruelly rigged game and sometimes like a not-particularly-benevolent (to most people) deity—in only half an hour? Should we trust Dalio to summarize its complexity? The billionaire hedge-fund manager did, he tells us, manage “to anticipate and to sidestep the global financial crisis.” And he has made quite an impression on people like Forbes Senior Contributor Carmine Gallo with his “7,500-word LinkedIn article titled 'Why and How Capitalism Needs to be Reformed.'”

In that piece, the “voracious learner who studies narrative and communication… turns an enormously complex subject into a simple, compelling narrative.” He also makes it clear right in the title that by “the economy” he means a capitalist economy. It’s a point largely taken for granted in the animated explainer but an important one nonetheless given the underlying assumptions of the theory. Serious critiques of capitalism seem much harder to condense because they’re tasked with unpacking all those assumptions.

Marx’s Das Kapital spans three volumes, though he only lived to publish the first one, itself a monster of a read. Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century is maybe a little breezier, at 696 pages (though if you let The Economist read it for you, they can sum it up in four paragraphs). By contrast, Dalio offers a comprehensive primer in brief for those of us who skipped that macroeconomics course, or who never got the chance to sign up for one. But elsewhere he has matched capitalism's biggest critics with his own best-selling book Principles: Life and Work, a huge and highly-praised look at economic crises of debt, gross inequality, stagnant wages, etc. See him describe the book, in five minutes, on 60 Minutes, just above.

Capitalism's best-known critics, even those who want to see the current system swapped out for a more equitable, sustainable model, have known they must begin by learning how the current system works, or how it doesn’t. Dalio himself isn’t setting out to build a worker’s paradise or to make financiers like himself obsolete, but he does have some trenchant thoughts on capitalism’s failures—and they are many, in his estimation. Still, he believes he knows how it can be reformed “to produce better outcomes.” Learn more in his compellingly-written essay here.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Buckminster Fuller Rails Against the “Nonsense of Earning a Living”: Why Work Useless Jobs When Technology & Automation Can Let Us Live More Meaningful Lives

We are a haunted species: haunted by the specter of climate change, of economic collapse, and of automation making our lives redundant. When Marx used the specter metaphor in his manifesto, he was ironically invoking Gothic tropes. But Communism was not a boogeyman. It was a coming reality, for a time at least. Likewise, we face very real and substantial coming realities. But in far too many instances, they are also manufactured, under ideologies that insist there is no alternative.

But let’s assume there are other ways to order our priorities, such as valuing human life as an end in itself. Perhaps then we could treat the threat of automation as a ghost: insubstantial, immaterial, maybe scary but harmless. Or treat it as an opportunity to order our lives the way we want. We could stop inventing bullshit, low-paying, wasteful jobs that contribute to cycles of poverty and environmental degradation. We could slash the number of hours we work and spend time with people and pursuits we love.




We have been taught to think of this scenario as a fantasy. Or, as Buckminster Fuller declared in 1970—on the threshold of the “Malthusian-Darwinian” wave of neoliberal thought to come—“We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everybody has to be employed at some kind of drudgery…. He must justify his right to exist.” In current parlance, every person must somehow “add value” to shareholders’ portfolios. The shareholders themselves are under no obligation to return the favor.

What about adding value to our own lives? “The true business of people," says Fuller, "should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living.” Against the “specious notion” that everyone should have to make a wage to live--this "nonsense of earning a living"--he takes a more magnanimous view: “It is a fact today that one in ten thousand of us can make a technological breakthrough capable of supporting all the rest," who then may go on to make millions of small breakthroughs of their own.

He may have sounded overconfident at the time. But fifty years later, we see engineers, developers, and analysts of all kinds proclaiming the coming age of automation in our lifetimes, with a majority of jobs to be fully or partially automated in 10-15 years. It is a technological breakthrough capable of dispensing with huge numbers of people, unless its benefits are widely shared. The corporate world sticks its head in the sand and issues guidelines for retraining, a solution that will still leave masses unemployed. No matter the state of the most recent jobs report, serious losses in nearly every sector, especially manufacturing and service work, are unavoidable.

The jobs we invent have changed since Fuller’s time, become more contingent and less secure. But the obsession with creating them, no matter their impact or intent, has only grown, a runaway delusion no one can seem to stop. Should we fear automation? Only if we collectively decide the current course of action is all there is, that “everybody has to earn a living”—meaning turn a profit—or drop dead. As Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—echoing Fuller—put it recently at SXSW, “we live in a society where if you don’t have a job, you are left to die. And that is, at its core, our problem…. We should not be haunted by the specter of being automated out of work.”

“We should be excited about automation,” she went on, “because what it could potentially mean is more time to educate ourselves, more time creating art, more time investing in and investigating the sciences.” However that might be achieved, through subsidized health, education, and basic services, new New Deal and Civil Rights policies, a Universal Basic Income, or some creative synthesis of all of the above, it will not produce a utopia—no political solution is up that task. But considering the benefits of subsidizing our humanity, and the alternative of letting its value decline, it seems worth a shot to try what economist Bill Black calls the "progressive policy core," which, coincidentally, happens to be "centrist in terms of the electorate's preferences."

via Kottke

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

To Save Civilization, the Rich Need to Pay Their Taxes: Historian Rutger Bregman Speaks Truth to Power at Davos and to Fox’s Tucker Carlson

Certain economists may have downgraded the labor theory of value, but most of us can agree on the basic moral intuition that no one person is worth millions, even billions, more than almost everyone else on the planet. Yet we live in a society that allows individuals to hoard millions and billions of dollars in cash, assets, and capital gains, without even the presumption that they demonstrate why they should have it--especially to the degree that the top 1% now holds more wealth than 90% in the U.S.

What social contract allows for this situation? I’m not personally interested in the answer from economists, though I imagine there are many excellently accredited proponents. The dominant assumptions in economics come from fantasies like ceteris paribus, “all else being equal,” and the concept of “externalities.” World historical inequality, political instability, and ecological devastation do not seem to pose serious problems for most mainstream economic thinking. But what do historians say? This is, after all, a historical question.




Many similar situations have obtained in the past. Sometimes they have resulted in bloody revolutions, sometimes sacking and pillaging, sometimes redistribution schemes. Noblesse oblige: land grants, endowments, hospitals, museums, universities… these have not only eased the consciences of the rich but have stood out as appeasing acts of public generosity. But the only thing that has really mitigated the conditions for societal collapse under capitalism?

According to Dutch historian and writer Rutger Bregman, it’s high taxes on high incomes and estates. It just so happened, however, at this year’s Davos World Economic Forum, as Bregman lamented in a Davos panel discussion, taxes were the one thing billionaires would not discuss. This was so, he observes, at a conference that features Sir David Attenborough “talking about how we’re wrecking the planet.”

I mean, I hear people talking the language of participation and justice and equality and transparency, but then, I mean, almost no one raises the real issue of tax avoidance, right? And of the rich are just not paying their fair share. I mean, it feels like I’m at a firefighter’s conference and no one’s allowed to speak about water.

Picturing firefighters hoarding water and refusing to share it while the planet is going up in flames is a sinister image, but maybe the intentions are beside the point. Even where tax rates are high(ish), governments go out of their way to allow companies and individuals to avoid paying them. Surely, many people believe this is necessary to create jobs? So what if those jobs lack security, benefits, or a living wage?

Bregman pulls back from the inflammatory metaphor to concede that one panel did address the issue. He was one of fifteen participants. We have to “stop talking about philanthropy,” he says, “and start talking about taxes,” just like Americans did in the supposedly halcyon days of the 1950s, when under Republican president Dwight D. Eisenhower the top marginal tax rate was 91%. He says this to people like Michael Dell, who once asked Bregman for an example of a 70% tax rate ever working.

Oxfam’s executive director Winnie Byanyima substantiates his polemic, noting globally “we have a tax system that leaks so much, that $170 billion” annually ends up in tax havens. This is wealth that is extracted from the planet’s resources, from government subsidies and the labor hours and health of grossly underpaid workers. Then it is disappeared. If you’ve seen this video, you’ve seen the charges of “one-sidedness” lobbed by former Yahoo CFO Ken Goldman from the audience. Byanyima's response rebuts all of his talking points. She deserves her own cheerleading video edit.

Bregman took the same confrontational stance in an unaired interview with Fox’s Tucker Carlson. After Carlson seemed to agree with him, the historian bristled and pointed out that as “a millionaire funded by billionaires,” Carlson has faithfully represented and communicated the interests of his employers for decades, whether that's the brutal scapegoating of immigrants or the defense of unlimited profiteering and huge tax cuts for the wealthy (and tax raises for everyone else). The host ends the interview sputtering insults and obscenities and sneers “I was willing to give you a hearing.” The problem requires more than a condescending pat on the head, Bregman argues.

His solution to massive inequality and unrest, universal basic income, is one that, like high marginal tax rates, once appealed to Republicans. The proposal has a long history, many serious detractors, and it’s also politically ignored. You can hear Bregman’s argument for it above, and against Margaret Thatcher’s ruthlessly ahistorical characterization of poverty as a “personality defect.” If you think UBI goes too far, or not nearly far enough, maybe you’d be interested in other ideas, like a 15-hour workweek and open borders, part of the “ideal world” Bregman says is possible in his book Utopia for Realists. You can download it as a free audiobook if you sign up for Audible's free trial program.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

How the Ancient Mayans Used Chocolate as Money

We've had hundreds and hundreds of years to get used to money in the form of coins and bills, though exactly how long we've used them varies quite a bit from region to region. Of course, some spots on the globe have yet to adopt them at all, as anyone who's heard the much-told story of the Yap islanders and their huge limestone discs knows. But the history of money is, in essence, the history of bartering — trading something you have for something you want — becoming more and more abstract; now, with digital crypto-currencies like Bitcoin, it looks like money will ascend one level of abstraction higher. But to imagine what a truly non-abstract currency looks like, just look at the ancient Mayan civilization, the members of which paid their debts with chocolate.

"The ancient Maya never used coins as money," writes Science's Joshua Rapp Learn. "Instead, like many early civilizations, they were thought to mostly barter, trading items such as tobacco, maize, and clothing." Thanks to the work of archaeologist Joanne Baron, a scholar of murals, ceramic paintings, carvings and other objects depicting life in the Classic Maya period which ran from around 250 BC to 900 AD, we've now begun to learn how chocolate took on a major, money-like role in the Maya's economy.




Some images depict cups of chocolate itself, which the Mayans usually enjoyed in the form of a hot drink, being accepted as payment, and others show chocolate traded in the coin-like form of "fermented and dried cacao beans." In many scenes, Maya leaders receive their tributes (or taxes) most often in the form of "pieces of woven cloth and bags labeled with the quantity of dried cacao beans they contain."

Cacao beans eventually became such a valuable currency "that it was evidently worth the trouble to counterfeit them," writes Smithsonian's Josie Garthwaite in an article about the early history of chocolate (a subject about which you can learn more in the TED-ed video above). "At multiple archaeological sites in Mexico and Guatemala," she quotes anthropologist Joel Palka as saying, "researchers have come across remarkably well-preserved 'cacao beans'" that turn out to be made of clay. "Some scholars believe drought led to the downfall of the Classic Maya civilization," Learn notes, and according to Baron, "the disruption of the cacao supply which fueled political power may have led to an economic breakdown in some cases." That may sound strangely familiar to those of us who — even here in the 21st century, among the many who have gone nearly cashless and may soon not even need a credit card — have breakdowns of our own when we can't get our chocolate.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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