Sunday, March 16, 2008

An Economics Lesson from Beatrix Potter

A few months back I mentioned that we acquired a set of DVDs of Beatrix Potter stories (Peter Rabbit, and the like). I wrote about it at the time, because these stories--well-written, slow-paced, kids' stories--were actually surprisingly dark for children's literature. That is, they appear dark to those of us accustomed to the modern stuff (which Charlotte Mason would most assuredly have referred to as "twaddle").

We adults are accustomed to giving our kids stuff that is utterly unoffensive. They're fluffy bunny stories, for crying out loud! They have cute little animals hopping around doing cute things! We wouldn't want to see any blood now, would we? But somehow the Beatrix Potter stories contain those dark undertones that exist in so much of the natural world. Bad things happen--or at least, the threat of them is there. Animals get sick. Peter's father had been put in a pie by Mrs. McGregor. They may be fluffy bunny stories, but if an overprotective parent is trying to create a world made of Nerf to keep the kids safe, these stories are quite out-of-place in that world.

Well, the kids liked those animated stories so much that Tonya started picking up the books on their weekly library trips. The girls especially like reading the stories they already recognize from the videos; but they also got a few of the books that hadn't been animated.

I picked up one of them and read through it a few days ago. It was entitled The Tale of Ginger and Pickles.

Good heavens.

I mean, Good Heavens.

Now I thought that Dr. Seuss's Thidwick the Big-Hearted Moose had shades of Ayn Rand when I read through it; but it's not the only one. The Tale of Ginger and Pickles seriously has that Atlas Shrugged vibe going too.

In case you'd like to take a look at it, here's a link to the entire book, with illustrations.

And as a brief digression, if any of you hasn't yet been introduced to Project Gutenberg, I'd like to make that introduction. The goal of Project Gutenberg is to get every public domain document ever written online. Just about any famous author and document ever written is already covered, from all the Beatrix Potter stuff to everything by Shakespeare to Canterbury Tales (in Middle English) to Churchill's The River War (about the British conquest of the Sudan) to anything by H. G. Wells. I've gone there very frequently when I want to look up quotes by famous authors, or when I decide I want to read a famous old document. It's a resource well worth bookmarking.

But here's a synopsis of The Tale of Ginger and Pickles:
  • Ginger is a tom-cat, and Pickles is a terrier. They operate a general store.
  • Their clients--bunnies, mice, rats--are afraid of them, since they're carnivores.
  • But they don't want to eat their customers, because then they'd have no more customers.
  • And their customers shop there because they offer credit (while their competitor doesn't).
  • The trouble is, they are a wee bit too free with their credit.
  • And no one ever pays them back. Some because they can't, some because they just won't.
  • So they start running out of money, and have to eat their own goods.
  • Then the taxman shows up, and they can't pay, so they go out of business.
  • Then suddenly everyone is worse off, except the competitor, who gets to raise her prices.
  • And Ginger and Pickles decide to go into hunting instead.
  • The rest of the community finds itself having to get its goods from other sources.
  • None of these goods had the quality of those in Ginger and Pickles' store.
  • Everyone suffers until the store is re-opened under new management.
  • The new management runs a decent store, but only takes cash.
Now, tell me: when was the last time you read a fluffy bunny story that presented that kind of economic lesson?

I mean, just off the top of my head, here are a few economic lessons that can be drawn from the above synopsis:
  • Note that the carnivores had a very real incentive not to prey on their customers. The free market has a civilizing influence. After all, you can only thrive in a free market if you're able to meet someone else's needs.
  • It's easy to demonize businesses, and to feel no pity when they go under. The trouble is, their fate is tied to ours; if the businesses that serve us go down, it hurts us too.
  • It's easy to feel pity for those who are in debt. The trouble is, if they can't or won't pay back their debts, it badly hurts their creditors; and that pain gets spread around to everyone in the community.
  • The customers abused their credit; by the end of the book, there was no credit available anywhere.
  • Taxes really do put a burden on business. In marginal cases--where the business is just barely hanging on--the taxes can put the business over the edge into insolvency. This does nobody any good either--not even the government, since the business they were taxing just ceased to exist.
Presenting this stuff to my kids feels, well... a little strange. Not wrong, mind you, just strange. Just as it feels strange to present fluffy bunny stories to our young in which the fluffy bunny is in danger of being eaten, it just feels a little weird to expose our kids to stories in which un- considered generosity results in disaster for the generous one.

We're supposed to be teaching our kids to be idealists! We're supposed to be defending their childhoods from cynicism and disappointment for as long as possible!

Actually, we're supposed to be equipping and preparing them for life. And while I'm not sure yet of the best age to start teaching economics to the wee ones, they will need to know at some point how to handle their money--and how to recognize an unhealthy market situation when they see it. I suspect that a lot more people in this country could have seen the current mortgage meltdown coming, had they just internalized the Tale of Ginger and Pickles at a young age. After all, while I'm no economist, our current economic troubles sure look to me like a case of too-easy credit causing too-big debts causing defaulting debtors causing bankrupt creditors causing no money available for borrowing causing big drop in business across the board. Hmmm...


Well, Tonya and I have decided that these books are worth having around all the time, so we went over to and placed an order for this. And just for kicks, I ordered a copy of Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism at the same time, since I've been wanting it for my upcoming birthday. Coincidentally, Amazon was offering Liberal Fascism in a package deal with Thomas Sowell's Economic Facts and Fallacies. I didn't actually order that one too; I suspect that after Beatrix Potter, it's probably a little redundant. ;-)

Oh, and it gave my wife and me a little giggle when we thought about what our order would do to Amazon's "Customers who bought this item also bought..." feature. I can just see some future political scientist... or some parent of toddlers... seeing Beatrix Potter paired with Liberal Fascism, and seriously freaking out.


In the meantime, we're feeling a little liberated, actually. Who says that fluffy bunny stories have to be saccharine-sweet? I'm just wondering how much longer I have to wait before introducing my children to Richard Adams' Watership Down.


photogirl said...

My kids have really been enjoying Beatrix Potter's tales. They all have a certain edge to them. We haven't read Ginger and Pickles yet. My kids like Mrs. Tittlemouse, the obsessive house cleaner who evicts squatters from her home.

Richard said...

I was just "Google Alerted" to your post, and Holy Smokes!!! Good Job. This time you really were coherent, though I don't know about your other posts. I am most impressed by the simplified (not simplistic) economic layout you provided.

I have read blogs from lots of university scientists, literature profs, and even philosophers, and for all their high falutin', holier than thou language, they generally make far far less sense than you --and their main approach to dissent is to ridicule and smear the opposing argument rather than actually addressing it. You were a pleasure to read, perspicuous, and not a little perspicacious either.

Have another go at some more Ayn Rand --perhaps "For The New Intellectual", but don't drop the perspicacity you use when reading Beatrix ;-)

Jarrod J. Williamson, Ph.D. said...

You said ...
Note that the carnivores had a very real incentive not to prey on their customers. The free market has a civilizing influence. After all, you can only thrive in a free market if you're able to meet someone else's needs.


After all, while I'm no economist, our current economic troubles sure look to me like a case of too-easy credit causing too-big debts causing defaulting debtors causing bankrupt creditors causing no money available for borrowing causing big drop in business across the board.

Which just goes to prove that this is a lesson that is repeatedly NOT learned by many businessess. This has happened over and over by businessess who want to make a quick buck (albeit a huge buck) and then get out. Then, there is a tremendous amount of damage before free market economics takes over to fix things. (E.g., Enron.)

Hence, the need for some reasonable government regulations. Economics is a balance between equity and efficiency, and the market does not always get it right, or if it does, it does so with huge swings between economic boon and bust, causing damage that lasts for years.

While I believe is a free market economy (with some reasonable regulations), its main problem IMO is the assumption that people will behave rationally while doing what is in their best interest. History is repleat with examples to the contrary.

(BTW, you might like Dr. Dan Airely's Predictable Irrationality. I have not read it yet, but his interview of Bob Brinker's Money Talk was fascinating.)

Richard said...

Mr Williamson quotes Mr. Powers's "too easy credit" sequence as if the easy credit were the "lesson that is repeatedly NOT learned by many businessess [sic]." Clearly he thinks the mortgage and loan businesses are the ones causing Mr Powers's sequence.

The causes of the 'mortgage crisis' hardly begins at that point. The Federal Government has repeatedly insisted, both in rhetoric and government programs, that lenders should allow higher risk mortgages and loans at lower rates than is wise. The government wants appear to care for the 'litle guy', and to create the appearance of a stronger economy, in part, by increasing the number of homeowners (to look good to the electorate).

Furthermore, interest rates are 'adjusted' by the Federal Reserve, making easy-credit easy for lenders to lend, in keeping with the first mandate.

The fault, emphatically, does not lie with the lenders --the businesses Williamson blames-- but with government interference. Indeed the evidence for this is staring economists in the face. When the rate of foreclosures by lenders seeking to save themselves from the excessive risks they had been expected to carry, lending rates began to climb. Who stepped in to keep those rates in that same risky low-interest range? Those who caused it in the first place: Bernanke and the Federal Reserve!

It is a common trend in N. America and abroad for people to blame all market distortions on businessmen , and to then demand or at least propose more of the very kinds of government interferences that caused the problem in the first place. This is usually couched in such phrases as "reasonable government regulations", as does Williamson. In fact, those regulations are anything but reasonable.. they are catastrophic to all but those few who ride the initial wave of artificial economic benefit. The examples for this abound, from health care to rental housing regulations to farm handouts to electricity production. On and On it will go until the intellectual climate of economics rises back to the 1776-America level of Enlightenment.

The practical and moral solution is not less market freedom, but more. That is, a return to The Enlightenment thinking that produced nothing less than a proper recognition --thanks to John Locke and the Founders-- of the Individual citizens' Rights to Life, Liberty and Property.

Timothy Power said...

Thanks for the ego-stroking. We can all use a little now and again.

note: as I was writing the following, Richard's second comment came in. Most of the following was written before I noticed his new comment.

I see the free market a little like I see representative democracy: to paraphrase Churchill, it's the absolute worst form of economy, except for all the others. The free market has the same Big Flaw that our government has: it's made up of people. One can certainly make the case that a little governmental nudge in the right direction can occasionally avert a crash later on. After all, there's that famous quote about the job of the Fed being to "take the punchbowl away just as the party gets started." And I think we're all better off when everyone has to release outside-audited financial statements that use a common set of accounting assumptions.

But the regulators are human, too, and they don't always make their decisions according to rational economic criteria, either. The Fed has been known to try to stave off collapse by printing even more money, and making credit even easier than it was when we got ourselves into the mess in the first place. It's been argued that a big part of the current crunch came about because lenders were under political pressure to relax their lending standards, to make homeownership available to more minority and low-income types. Then the lending institutions recognized the inherent risks they faced, so they bundled up the mortgages and sold them off to unsuspecting third parties...

...and we're way past the whole point of my blog post (and way past this non-economist's sphere of expertise). The main point I want to make has to do with the teaching of some money-savvy to the young'uns. It is true (as John Maynard Keynes pointed out) that "The markets can remain irrational longer than you can remain solvent." But our job as parents, is to help our kids learn enough so that they can act rationally, even when the markets don't--which will happen, given that people are in charge of everything. Every generation learns about bubbles--which are really just variations on the good old-fashioned pyramids--the hard way; but we have a chance to teach them to recognize the warning signs before they're adults and have their life savings invested.

And that's what caught my interest about the Tale of Ginger and Pickles. I think it behooves parents always to be on the lookout for accessible literature that teaches kids the facts of life in ways that are clearly understandable, and I think this story does that.

Richard said...

Tim, I like the way you worked to bring the conversation back to the narrower point. The trouble with such 'Big Ideas' as economic event-chains is that interpreting them always brings in more fundamental abstract concepts. I believe they should not be ignored, not just for the sake of ‘adult viewpoints’ but for the sake of children’s minds.

With the present economic question the deeper issue is whether individual men are able to perform productively without living through injustice to others. Beatrix Potter's answer to that question actually lies at the heart of "Ginger and Pickles" (G&P), but is not named. Mr. Williamson picked up on it, because it really is there! This is a vital issue for children to understand. Should they grow up thinking their Nature as Man is fundamentally flawed, that they must become either Givers or Takers?
(You may have read Shel Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree”. This review recognizes that error.)

Your recognition of the deeper values in G&P is an example of, to me, a very very important aspect of children's literature. G&P provides some simple but real concretes towards the proper understanding they must ultimately develop.

The chain of economic consequences in G&P is what actually happens in proper economics. In a free society that chain is self correcting. In a free society, individuals learn the responsibility of reasoning through such chains. Government intervention, such as Williamson advocates, and you gingerly accept, insulates people from such facts and consequences. Such intervention prevents them from reasoning properly, as do poorer children’s books and faulty economic lessons.

The few Enron type businessmen, and the majority of their victims, are uncommon business criminals or unthinking investors. (Quite a number of thinking investment advisers pulled their clients' investments from Enron when they saw Enron's fishy accounting procedures.) These businessmen should not be presented as the norm. The norm is the Beatrix Potter businessman.

The Founders of America grasped that, and sought to free good productive men from coercive interference by other men. Not just from criminals but, in particular, from men governing the country. Politicians and civil servants are, after all, just other men!

The genius of the Founders lay in recognizing that Men are, by and large, going to pursue The Good if left to their own devices. Thus the Founders' individual rights were designed to protect citizens from Enron criminals, not from business geniuses such as Sam Walton or Bill Gates. However, the judicial system is so confused on such issues that they award millions to a woman who cannot grasp that MacDonalds coffee might be hot!!

The application of individual rights should include proper contract enforcement, not interference in day to day business decisions such as accounting. The extent to which Walmart or Microsoft have committed injustices is a function of that widespread confusion about individual rights, and contract enforcement, more than a sign of their being unjust businesses.

A child needs to understand that his ability to reason is his most valid tool for achieving self-esteem, success and happiness. He cannot do that if he is told Men (including himself!) are inherently unjust, and must therefore accept the political control of other men. He needs to see the concrete facts that will lead him to the abstract principles that will enable him to understand and live by such incredible values as Individual Rights and proper judicial support of contracts. He needs to learn enough to grasp that "reasonable government regulation" of non-coercive economic activity is an oxymoron, and is the door to a Pandora's Box of economic destruction. In respecting himself, rationally, he is more likely to respect others who are rational and just.

"Ginger and Pickles" is an appropriate, tiny step in the right direction. It is a useful tool of rational parenting. It is a book that rewards children for reading because it provides principles they can actually use in life. As such, it encourages reading.

By contrast, today's children's book authors and publishers (and the teachers who use such books) teach children that reading ultimately provides escape, politically correct moralizing, or dry facts. No wonder children cease reading as teenagers!!

As you can see, I am quite passionate about children's literature.

Jarrod J. Williamson, Ph.D. said...

Richard ...

No, I don't place the blame entirely upon the businesses. I blame the homeowners much more than I blame the lenders. However, the lenders did know what they were doing and did know they were making loans that the homeowners most likely would not be able to keep up with. (E.g., the term "liar loans" was commonly used in the mortgage industry speaks volumes about what they thought was going on.)

If, as Timothy said, we carefully taught our children the basics of economics, then today's generation would not have been so foolish as to take out the loans that they did.

However, like car salesmen who sell cars to people they [the salesman] know the purchasers will not be able to afford, the mortgage lenders were giving loans they knew the borrowers could not afford.

Neither side, the borrower nor the lender, was behaving rationally in the own best interest ... which happens over, and over, and over again.

The free market economy (with some reasonable restrictions, like child labor laws, etc.), like democracy, is the worst for there is ... except for every other form of economy.

(BTW, Richard, my understanding is that mortgage interest rates are not directly tied to the Fed rate. Rather long term residential mortgage rates are tied to the yields on the 30-year and 10-year treasury bonds.)

Jarrod J. Williamson, Ph.D. said...

BTW, Richard, for what it is worth, you assumed a great deal more of what I was saying that what I actually did say, or intend. And you know what happens when you ass-u-me, right? ;-)

I don't mind being criticized, but please take the time to find out what I actually do believe, and then criticize that.

Believe me, there is plenty to criticize in what I believe, but please be careful about assigning certain views to me that I may or may not hold.

Richard said...

Mr. Williamson wrote, "However, the lenders did know what they were doing and did know they were making loans that the homeowners most likely would not be able to keep up with. (E.g., the term "liar loans" was commonly used in the mortgage industry speaks volumes about what they thought was going on.)"

I have already pointed out that the lenders were pressed to make such loans by government policies, and that subsequent government actions prove that point. I believe Williamson could fill in the details for himself, but has asked instead. I doubt this is the direction Mr. Powers wishes, but maybe he won't mind.

Lenders and borrowers are subject to government loan-guarantee programs backed by lenders' genuine fear of 'investigation' and lawsuit, if found to be turning down too many high risk lenders. This is compounded by inflation, which is fundamentally a matter of worthless, fiat, printed money being poured into the economy by the government. In one shot worthless paper (digital?) that looks like, and which citizens must treat as being, $62 billion, was plunged into the economy. Why? prop up the illusory, and collapsing, financial environment that the lenders and borrowers were already expected to rationally act on. The next collapse of the illusion will, thereby, be even worse!

Government interference always distorts the economy and individual value judgments, such as how much to borrow or lend, what to buy and what is affordable. It sets up a variation of a Beatrix Potter chain of events that ultimately cheats all citizens, except the first beneficiaries (government programs and the first people to obtain that 'money').

Citizens have to struggle to survive in this house of cards, be they producer/consumers, lenders or borrowers! The fiat economic climate is irrational, and the most rational decisions in that climate stand a great chance of backfiring.

Given that highly intelligent academics, journalists, investment advisors, etc. fail to grasp the foregoing, it is wrong to make general statements about lenders or borrowers that suggest deliberate deceit or egregious evasion of financial reality. Even when couched in such terms as their need of a better "education". Such education is virtually unavailable. And yes, there are dishonest lenders and borrowers but, as I said of businessmen, they are not the norm. I do suspect there are more charlatans because of the kind of political dishonesty and academic ineptitude that has created this house of cards.

Mr Williamson also wrote, "However, like car salesmen who sell cars to people they [the salesman] know the purchasers will not be able to afford, the mortgage lenders were giving loans they knew the borrowers could not afford"

This conflates two very distinct situations. In the first it is entirely the customer's responsibility to spend only what he can afford. It should never be the legal responsibility of the salesman, so long as he does not commit fraud by claiming to offer significantly greater value than he actually is. No salesperson has a right to tell me what I can or cannot afford, except by mutual agreement. Honesty and rational mutual agreement are good for business.

A person who lends money is not 'selling' money as one does a car, he is renting it, and needs assurances that the borrower can pay that rent. Due diligence behoves the lender to know that the borrower can pay. Liar loans evade that requirement, attracting people who seek something for nothing, who then are 'shocked' when the reality finally comes home. Obviously, that's bad business.

Williamson is right to say both sides are responsible, but wrong to suggest that irresponsible behavior (as opposed to fraud) requires government intervention. A free market econoomy with reasonable restrictions is a contradiction!

(The 30 year and 10 year treasury bonds simply defer the payment of interest expense to later generations of taxpayers. Inflation can make the returns on such bonds profitless. I take the use of mortgage rate ties to simply have a smoothing effect upon the same fraudulent trends. This actually makes the illusion of money markets mentioned above an even more effective illusion, the damage is ultimately the same.)

Richard said...

Mr. Williamson wrote,
"BTW, Richard, for what it is worth, you assumed a great deal more of what I was saying that what I actually did say, or intend. And you know what happens when you ass-u-me, right?"

Are you sure of this? I have looked at your comment and my response to it, and see no assumptions by me. I see my comment as paying direct attention to the terms you used, and particularly to the conceptual hierarchy upon which they rely. The latter is not assumption, but may seem to you to be if you are functioning on a different hierarchy.

I suspect the latter is the case, because you clearly do think a free market requires regulation. This contradiction suggests a break in conceptual hierarchy, and hence in deeper premises. That is, there is a distortion caused by some kind of misunderstanding of the absolute, positive, moral properness of political and economic freedom.

This suspicion is also supported by two points you have made.
A) that the free market economy "is the worst [for] there is ... except for every other form of economy."
B) that A) is like democracy.

As I have said in an earlier comment, America was not intended to be a democracy in the Athenian sense. Instead it was intended to be a "Constitutional Republic protecting the Individuals Right to Life, Liberty and Property". The latter is the first objectively rational and absolutely correct form of government for men. Thus there truly *is* a good political system.

Similarly, a free market economy (laissez-faire capitalism) is the only, morally proper, means by which human beings should interact economically. It is not the best of a bad lot, it is a fabulous ideal, and has proven itself quite a few times in the last 300 years or so.

Obviously, today, the forgoing political and economic confusions predominate American political and economic thought. They need to be righted, if only for the sake of our children.

Jarrod J. Williamson, Ph.D. said...


I am checking with some of my mortgage lender friends to see if things are as you say. If so, I will retract my statements. If not, I will let you know.

Richard said...

This may seem cynical, but I am singularly impressed with Jarrod's last comment. It shows intellectual honesty that I rarely see, and I mean rarely!

I have caught PhD scientists (e.g. here) in flat out lies (concerning Ayn Rand's writings in this case), and on pointing them out received responses like this:

"Due diligence" my ass, little man. So you've read Atlas Shrugged. BFD."

That was followed by smears and nonsense that never addressed the actual lie. In fact he uses BFD to describe the value of checking one's facts! (Also this particular individual appears full of himself as a science fiction writer.) He is clearly a smart man, but smart does not mean honest.

Dishonesty is not something that such a person can exercise full time, it has to be exercised when one believes one can "get away with it", like any criminal. One has to be honest enough that when being dishonest, his victims must not expect it.

Such is how widespread intellectual dishonesty can be ...a scientist?... hardly.

As for the mortgage meltdown, I am confident my sources are sound, but Jarrod has chosen to check it himself! That is great... Jarrod, thanks for being so uplifting! I only hope your sources are also sound. (There is every probability they will not be.)

Timothy Power said...

Man, I neglect my blog for two days, and when I come back, there's this big conversation about hardcore economic theory going on in a post about children's literature. ;-)

Just so everyone knows, I do find these lines of reasoning fascinating--there's a lot of good food for thought here. But I do think I want to pull it back. My post, in the broader sense, is about literature that can be used to teach economic savvy, and other hard realities of life, to children.

There's a lot that can be said, and debated, about the Federal Reserve and its role in society, and about fiat money versus metal standards, and about the role (and the very legitimacy) of government intervention in the economy. And this thread has also moved in the direction of the morality of economic systems--something I briefly touched on in my post, and a topic which could (and does) fill books. There's a whole lot of good stuff here worth debating; and I may well post more on it in the future.

However, I think this thread has strayed too far from its original purpose, which had to do with teaching economics to young children using literature; and I'd like to keep it on that topic. A young child can understand debt and credit, especially after reading Ginger and Pickles. I'm not sure that a young kid can understand the Fed. (I'm not entirely sure that I do.) However, if someone has some children's literature in mind that illustrates the benefits or perils of a fiat money system (for example), in terms that kids can understand, I'd be very, very curious. Bring it on! But let's at least keep the conversation on that topic.

And one more thing that I must stress: while Jarrod, Richard, and I probably all have different political and religious beliefs, I insist on my blog that everyone retain a presumption of good-will toward the others. I suspect that Jarrod and I have differing economic preferences; I suspect that Richard and I have differing religious beliefs; and I believe that none of us is evil or venal or unthinking or ignorant. The above thread certainly isn't a flame war, but it's starting to get a little too personal for my tastes. We may be so accustomed to flaming that we start to think it's inevitable, but so long as Google lets me keep my blog here, I will use the iron hand of censorship to keep this blog a flame-free zone. ;-)

Richard said...

Tim said, "children's literature in mind that illustrates the benefits or perils of a fiat money system (for example), in terms that kids can understand, I'd be very, very curious."

So would I!

As for the rest of your comment, Tim... I agree. I pretty much said the same thing, but edited it down to one line. I like the focus of your blog, and would like to stick to it. That said, I do hope Jarrod will provide a short paragraph on what he finds out.

A children's book that demonstrates the difference between a metal standard and fiat money is quite a concept!

In "Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy" by Douglas Adams, Dent, Arthur Dent, encounters a world where trees have leaves that look like paper money. As I recall, it was the vacation mecca and retirement ideal for Bureaucrats all over the Galaxy! :-)

Timothy Power said...

I'd forgotten about that Hitchhikers' Guide story. You're quite right! As I recall, after they declared that leaves were to be their new currency, they discovered that there was too much of it around to constitute a stable, reliable currency; so they chose to solve the problem by burning down all the forests.

Makes sense to me....

Richard said...

Never forget your towel.

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