Regarding shoes and the kind of world I want to live in

Could Those Who Make Your Shoes Afford Them?” asks Miguel De La Torre at Ethics Daily.

I get to buy hiking shoes because the poor of the earth make them for me at slave wages. My riches are directly connected to their poverty.

That will get some people’s hackles up. They’ll respond defensively, as though De La Torre is suggesting that this connection must be simple and causal — as though he is saying that their poverty must be a direct consequence of our riches.

Set that aside for the moment. Don’t worry here about cause and effect, just appreciate that the connection is undeniable. They make the shoes. We wear the shoes. From their hands to our feet.

That’s a connection. It’s almost an intimate connection.

And it means we can’t disconnect ourselves from the haunting question in the title of De La Torre’s essay: “Can those who make our shoes afford to buy them?” Or our jeans, our shirts, ties, socks, suits, sweaters or underwear? What about our cars? Our appliances? Our coffee?

Please don’t hear these questions as an accusation. If we think of it that way, we’ll wind up with the defensive distractions of abstractions, or with the resentment that comes from inescapable guilt.

So let’s consider this not as an accusation but as an aspiration.

Think of it this way: I want those who make my shoes to be able to afford shoes. Don’t you want that, too?

Of course, this isn’t just a selfless, warm-fuzzy bit of Kumbaya generosity or altruism. There’s self-interest here as well. We should want the people who make the things we buy to be able to afford those same things because if they can afford that, then they can also afford to buy the goods or services we provide. When the poor of the earth are only paid, as De La Torre says, “slave wages,” then we’re all missing out on people who might otherwise have been our customers.

This is part of what I imagine a better world looks like. The people who make the things I buy can afford to buy the things I make. Those who make my shoes can afford to buy them.

That’s the world I want to live in.

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  • hagsrus

    From each according to…

    No, no! What am I thinking!!!

  • Tonio

     While I like your joke, one reason I oppose communism is because a wholly government-owned economy doesn’t benefit the general welfare any more than a laissez-faire one. In both, a small minority ends up accumulating almost all the wealth and power. I prefer government regulation instead of ownership because it better evens out the inequalities of power, with government power counterbalancing the power of private wealth. The goal is redistribution of power rather than income.

  • hapax

     The “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” idea isn’t exclusive to communism;  very similar dictums are found in many descriptions of ideal societies around the world.

    For example, in the Bible — both in the discussion of the gathering of manna during the Exodus, and in the apostolic organization of the early Church in Acts.

    Unfortunately, the human insistence on underestimating ability and overestimating need leads inevitably to the Tragedy of the Commons.

  • Thrownaway

    “then we’re all missing out on people who might otherwise have been our customers.”

    Not to mention how close some are to being on the other end of this particular chain.

  • TheDarkArtist

    Unfortunately, our politicians and wanna-be politicians are stuck in this 19th century worldview and can’t get past it. They’re okay with the foreign poor being chattel that can rightfully be ground to dust for our economic gain. And some of them are okay with domestic poor being used in the same way.

    It’s really a sick kind of worldview, and the fact that it’s been grafted onto Christianity to form this kind of Christianist neo-mercantilism makes it especially maddening and nauseating.

    I’d hesitate to call myself a communist, but it’s impossible to not see that socialism offers a balm to sooth the pain caused by decades of this unrestrained vulture capitalism that we suffer.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Alan-Alexander/502988241 Alan Alexander

     Unfortunately, our politicians and wanna-be politicians are stuck in
    this 19th century worldview and can’t get past it. They’re okay with the
    foreign poor being chattel that can rightfully be ground to dust for
    our economic gain. And some of them are okay with domestic poor being
    used in the same way.

    Please don’t blame this state of affairs on “politicians” as if they’re a race of space aliens who have conquered America and force their will on all the good folk who are filled with compassion for the Third World. A clear majority of Americans support foreign policy platforms that view most of the world with less respect than Rome viewed its tributaries. And I suspect that probably around 27% of the American people would be happy to see slavery reinstituted in this country if they could be assured of not being the ones left out picking cotton.

  • http://deird1.dreamwidth.org Deird

    I’ve been learning to crochet recently, and thinking about my hypothetical future children.

    If I ever have kids, I’d like to make at least some of their clothes – because then, they’ll hopefully grow up with an understanding of the fact that, every time they wear something, it means that someone, somewhere, made it.

    It’s easy to think nothing of the low prices our clothes cost, when their makers are so far away and we can forget that our low prices mean their low wages.

  • http://lliira.dreamwidth.org/ Lliira

    This is not just about workers overseas. 

    How can someone who works at Walmart, and is not a manager, afford to buy fair trade clothes? How can someone living on unemployment and food stamps afford organic, locally-grown produce? 

    Poor wages here mean that when middle and upper-class people start talking about this stuff, they’re almost always missing a big part of the picture. When someone can either choose to buy clothes made by slave labor overseas or see their children go naked, they’re going to grit their teeth and buy the clothes made by slave labor. 

    I do not think this has a top-down solution. Sure, people with money can make certain choices in how they consume. But until American workers politicize again, I do not think there is going to be meaningful change. 

  • depizan

    And it’s not just people working at Walmart or in fast food.  I work as a library clerk (granted, this puts me in the same wage bracket as a Barnes and Noble employee) and there are a lot of choices I can’t afford to make.

    When it comes to clothing, I’d say there are also other complications – like being compliant with workplace dress codes.

  • GeneMachine

    While it is true that in many cases, you do not have a choice, and that sweatshop slave labor can hardly be blamed on minimum wage workers buying their product, I’d like to mention that at least sometimes, you do have a choice.

    The article opens with the example of hiking boots –  and I am happy to say that the hiking boots I bought recently are not made in a sweatshop, but by a local shoemaking business, at pretty much exactly the same price tag you’d see on a comparable, most likely sweatshop-made boot. 

  • http://twitter.com/shay_guy Shay Guy

    But until American workers politicize again, I do not think there is going to be meaningful change.

    Does there exist a path to that outcome? I can’t see it just happening.

  • Don Gisselbeck

    Note that there are basically two kinds of slaves, disposable and non-disposable. The later existed in the antebellum South. A slave could cost the equivalent of several years wages for a skilled worker. There was thus at least theoreticlal incentive for the owner to keep the slave well fed, healthy and reasonably happy. In the 17th century Carribean (according to John Newton) slaves were so cheap the owners calculated it to be more profitable to work them to death. Not only are our shoes likely made by workers on the disposable end of the spectrum, the predator class is working hard to reduce the rest of us to the same state.

  • reynard61

    “Note that there are basically two kinds of slaves, disposable and non-disposable. The later existed in the antebellum South. A slave could cost the equivalent of several years wages for a skilled worker. There was thus at least theoretical incentive to keep the slave well-fed, healthy and reasonably healthy.”

    Warning: torture scars.

    Gee, would that the “theoretical” lined up with reality. Maybe someone just didn’t get that particular memo… [/snarkasm]

  • Don Gisselbeck

    Note the word “theoretical”.

  • Lori

     

    Gee, would that the “theoretical” lined up with reality. Maybe someone just didn’t get that particular memo… [/snarkasm]  

    As is so often the case, it’s more complicated than that. One of the many things that I think isn’t terribly well-taught in US history is the compare and contrast between indentured servitude and chattel slavery. Indentured servants, being white, were less likely to be tortured than African slaves, although it certainly did happen. However, if there was limited medicine during an outbreak of illness or limited food due to bad harvests the slaves tended to be treated or fed first because they represented a longer-term investment. 

  • Rhubarbarian82

    I was just thinking about this earlier today, stemming from another conversation. I don’t know why we’re still having such a hard time with this, it’s not some crazy newfangled theory. Henry Ford understood it a century ago.

  • GDwarf

    The famously capitalist and anti-union Henry Ford agreed with every word. He was against unions, so he made sure his workers were paid and treated well. He also felt that it only made sense to pay your workers enough that they could afford to buy your products: It meant that their income would return to you, and that they’d work harder on making your products good, because if they were slack then that might be the car they ended up buying one day.

    Shame his modern equivalents have decided that the stick is far superior to the carrot.

  • Kevinshands

    “The famously capitalist and anti-union Henry Ford agreed with every word. He was against unions, so he made sure his workers were paid and treated well. ”

    FWIW Henry Ford had a personal distain for capitalism. He was forced to raise money to start his enterprise but used his own money to buy out his backers as soon as he could because he couldn’t see any moral reason for them to be taking profits when they weren’t actually doing anything to deserve it.

    You’re right about the unions. He didn’t think that the workers should have any say in how HE ran HIS business.

  • http://twitter.com/AbelUndercity Abel Undercity

    That’s not a disdain for capitalism.  That’s a disdain for sharing power and profit.

  • Rolando

    I would rather someone overseas make barely any money making shoes, than barely make any money working as a prostitute or dying of starvation. I have never lived in a 3rd world country, so I can’t claim to know about their job-market situation. I’m guessing, though, that if people are taking jobs at “slave wages” there must be a much larger supply of workers than there is jobs available. 

    It’s an unfortunate situation, and I don’t know the solution. But feeling guilty that there are people out there that can’t afford to buy the very products they make doesn’t fix anything. The people who physically build Ferraris can’t afford to buy them; That doesn’t mean that Ferraris shouldn’t be built, or that the people who build them are being exploited, just that some people can’t afford them. On top of that, if the countries where cheap goods are made decide to enact minimum-wage laws then the prices here would shoot through the roof and even less people here would be able to buy most things necessary for everyday life. All I can say about that is that it really sucks, I feel really lucky that I was born in the country I was, and again, I have no idea what we can do to fix it.”Think of it this way: I want those who make my shoes to be able to afford shoes. Don’t you want that, too?”Of course I do, and I think most people do too. One of the problems is that resources, as a whole, aren’t limitless. Inevitably some people will have, and some won’t. I, like a lot of people, hate the disparity between the rich and the poor (especially as it stands between 1st-world and 3rd-world countries). I don’t know what can be done to narrow the margin, but am hopeful that people much smarter than I will be able to mend the system sooner rather than later.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    Ferraris are luxury goods, as opposed to staple goods like shoes and clothes.

    Also, your rationalizations for failing to improve the lot of those who toil to make shoes and clothes have little merit, because deliberate choices have been made by the companies which sell those items to seek as large of a profit margin as possible.

    Does anyone seriously believe a $50 pair of shoes costs that much to make? I’d be surprised if the total cost of materials + labor was more than $10 apiece.

  • Rolando

    “your rationalizations for failing to improve the lot of those who toil to make shoes and clothes have little merit”

    I don’t quite understand what you are getting at here. If I go with what I think you’re trying to say the I’d respond: I never said that we should do nothing to improve the plight of the poor. In fact I said that the disparity between the rich and poor is sickening, I just don’t know what can be done about it without telling private business owners how to run their own businesses.


    deliberate choices have been made by the companies which sell those items to seek as large of a profit margin as possible.”
    If you produced a product or owned a company would you seek to have as little a profit margin as possible? Isn’t the whole point of commerce to maximize gains and minimize expenses?

    “I’d be surprised if the total cost of materials + labor was more than $10 apiece. ”

    So you’d only sell them for $10? Or does selling shoes that cost you $10 for $50 make sense in that you aren’t in business to break even? The profit margin is there for re-investing the the growth of your company (and with such expansion comes the ability to hire more people), having money in store in case $hit hits the fan (lost/stolen inventory, injury on the job and person is suing), in case of a slow sales season/off year/down economy and less people are buying, and having buying power (Walmart can sell stuff cheap because they buy in INSANE quantities). 

    It is pretty gross how high profit-margins are on a lot of things (some prescription drugs come to mind: Provigil is ~$700 for one month’s supply – even pharmacists b!tched at the makers for such high prices) but there’s nothing we can do about businesses that charge too much…except not patronize them I guess. You can’t blame somebody for trying to make as much money off of a product as possible, assuming they do everything legal, right? In the end, a business will have to find the right sell price otherwise the masses won’t buy. Provigil is sold primarily to people who have health insurance. Those who don’t find cheaper, generic alternatives. If the makers of Provigil wanted a larger clientele they would have to lower the price. Some drug companies have programs for uninsured people who cannot afford their product, giving them discounts and working within their budget in hopes of pulling in more customers at a hit to their profits. This doesn’t always happen, and it would be nice if more companies/industries would do stuff like this: The people who can afford can pay, and try to work out something with those who can’t on essential things (like medicine, etc.).

    I can’t really offer any solutions, so maybe I should have stayed out to the dialogue. The biggest point I wanted to bring up in the first place is that in a lot of 3rd world countries you’re better off making “slave wages” making shoes, because the alternatives are often much worse.

    Also, why didn’t my text show up in paragraph form? Any help is appreciated on that front.

  • http://loosviews.livejournal.com BringTheNoise

    I just don’t know what can be done about it without telling private business owners how to run their own businesses.

    I fail to see a problem there. We do it all the time in the West – minimum wages, guaranteed breaks for workers, environmental regulations, etc, etc. What’s wrong with doing that in the developing world too?

    If you produced a product or owned a company would you seek to have as little a profit margin as possible?

    No, I’d seek a profit margin that allowed myself to live comfortably, without having to exploit anyone. It’s entirely possible, you know – but maybe I wouldn’t get paid tens of millions of  pounds per year, which is apparently unacceptable to some people. I don’t respect those people very much. 

    The biggest point I wanted to bring up in the first place is that in a lot of 3rd world countries you’re better off making “slave wages” making shoes, because the alternatives are often much worse.

    That’s not a reason to not try to improve conditions still further.

    Also, why didn’t my text show up in paragraph form? Any help is appreciated on that front.

    Disqus moves in mysterious ways.  And also sucks. Sorry dude.

  • http://twitter.com/shay_guy Shay Guy

    Which brings the quote that provided the whole basis for this post into question, if that phenomenon is only a small part of the story and much of it is a simpler phenomenon.

    On the other hand, if it means an opportunity to quote Ilpalazzo…

  • Dan Audy

    My blue sky solution is to bring back (limited) tariffs.

    The fundamental problem is that the developed world has rejected harsh labour conditions and extreme environmental destruction (but allows a lot and is desperately trying to roll back the protections that exist).  Free traders have eliminated virtually all international obstacles to import/export and international investment/profits.  Thus it is simple for most manufactured goods to export the jobs to regions that have not yet had the decades long struggle of unions for reasonable working conditions and pay and reduce prices that way.

    Each country can assess tariffs on products being imported based on imbalance between the labour and environmental protections in the source and destination countries.  This means that countries can make laws that meet their needs but the race to the bottom between third world countries is less extreme because (ideally) the tariffs on goods produced are significant enough that improving the workers conditions to get lower rates would be viable.  Additionally individual businesses could get individual rate breaks by receiving inspections to show that they exceeding their country’s legal requirements.  This should also increase the value of intranational production which benefits the nation more significantly.

  • http://loosviews.livejournal.com BringTheNoise

    On top of that, if the countries where cheap goods are made decide to enact minimum-wage laws then the prices here would shoot through the roof and even less people here would be able to buy most things necessary for everyday life

    [Citation needed]

    I somehow doubt many corporations would prefer to keep their profit margins (which are stupidly large) at the expense of destroying the market. Nike won’t last long selling exclusively to millionaires…

  • heckblazer

    They do have minimum wage laws, but because poor countries are poor the minimum wages are much lower than in wealthy industrialized countries.  If I told you a hotel worker in Tanzania was paid $5 a day you might think they were being horribly exploited.  If I added that the minimum wage for the sector was the equivalent of $2 a day and that $5 was considered a pretty good day’s pay in the   country it sounds a lot more reasonable.   In demanding fair wages and good working conditions you always have to ask “compared to what?” since refusing to buy products from developing countries until pay and conditions reach parity with the US  will counter-productively cut them off from the world’s largest consumer market and make it harder for them to improve wages and conditions.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    The problem is that even when there are statutory minimum wage and work hours laws, some countries lack the effective law enforcement apparatus to make laws like that stick.

  • heckblazer

    Absolutely true.  I would submit that minimum wage laws being unenforced due to corruption is superior to them being unenforced because no-one has jobs.  It’s a lot easier to go on strike to protest the former, for a start.  

  • http://mordicai.livejournal.com Mordicai

    Boom.  This post has an easy, subtle poetry that underscores the basic point: vastly unequal wealth distribution is not an efficient way to run an economy.  

  • jael heber

    See, I don’t think the hiking boots are the problem.   As abhorrent as Nike used to be, they’re now regarded as one of the best low skill factory employers in SEA.   Foxcon has problems, but their wages enable people to save and send up to 75% of their wages home each year.   Think about how much you save as a % of your income  – anywhere near that amount?   A couple of years in, and you leave again.   Most brands employee INGO’s to conduct inspections etc. 

    The really abhorrent factories are not those factories of companies concerned with the bad PR poor labour relations might have for their brand.  –> note the key word.   Nike got its shit together big time when the brand was on the line.    Much, much, much more problematic are the very low cost products that fill the shelves of KMart and WalMart and Top Dollar and so forth.    The prices on these products are beyond ridiculous, and conditions in those factories tend to err on the bottom side of appalling.   

    While I agree with Fred that the goal should always be that anyone, anywhere can afford the Nikes or what have you; however in the meantime, might I posit it is a much more achievable goal to suggest that we should to have every person in any given society to be able to afford the equivalent of those hiking boots – goods of a particular standard and quality that will last.   If it’s all Vietnamese against all Vietnamese buying a product which costs some 10% in dong what it does in US$ – good.   that’s where we should be.   Ditto all American’s being able to afford shoes that won’t fall apart after a week of rough wear.   

    Bringthenoise- most of the developing world *does* have a minimum wage.   That’s not the problem.   It’s that government tends to set the minimum ways that benefit their macro and micro economic policies.   Eg: a lower wage for national companies, but low low low for all companies to attract investment.  etc.    

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    One thing I read about which was interesting is that Western companies using Third World labor have inadvertently caused subtle shifts in gender power relations that could have interesting long-term consequences.

    See, in the West, payroll has, since about the 1930s or 1940s, been set up so the person who works is the person who gets paid, which means a woman or a teenager who works typically gets their own paycheck.

    Hardly worth noticing, right?

    Well, when companies started setting up shop in Asian countries in the 1970s and 1980s, especially the poorer ones where the majority of the workforce had, until then, mostly lived off agriculture and domestic light industry, the Western companies brought their payroll structure with them. And women as well as men flocked to the new factories opening up.

    For the first time, housewives got control over their own bank accounts because the way the companies wanted to pay workers made it simpler for the women who worked to get their own paychecks.

    You’d be right in assuming this also gave said women the first notion that they could be independent of the men in their lives.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=507398586 Tim Fargus

    Here’s part of the problem, as I’m seeing it: it’s hard to get the political will to make things like this better from our end when the working class in our country can still scrape by, even if it’s only by the skin of their teeth. But it’s all a vicious cycle.

    1) Borderline slave labor overseas allows companies to make shoddy products incredibly cheaply.

    2) Therefore companies can slap a VERY healthy profit margin on them and still sell them in the US at prices that read as cheap*.

    3) Those cheap products allow companies back home to hold down workers’ wages without the workers rising up about it, because they can still meagerly scrape by.

    Rinse, repeat.

    It seems to me that for things to change, things have to get really bad. Not just the threat of things getting bad, but things actually getting bad. I don’t want that to happen, and I want people to see what road they’re driving down, but unless they can actually feel the car sailing over the cliff, it seems that a lot of people don’t have any interest in trying to turn the wheel.

    *The fact that these products are cheap and also shoddy means that we’re quite often in a disposable equilibrium, where if we had more expensive products, made by better paid workers, they might last longer and help achieve a different equilibrium. But profits accrue from transactions more than from quality, especially when wages have been depressed enough that workers can’t afford the up-front investment necessary to buy quality goods, so I don’t see how this equilibrium could really be reached (and there’s the perverse problem, then, that if people had to buy less stuff, but better made stuff, then there might be fewer jobs in making that stuff).

  • Tonio

    This is part of what I imagine a better world looks like. The people
    who make the things I buy can afford to buy the things I make. Those who
    make my shoes can afford to buy them.

    That’s the world I want to live in as well. I would suggest that an economy is supposed to serve people and not the other way around, except the “slave wages” phenomenon isn’t really the latter. Instead, it’s about an economy serving a small plutocracy at the expense of everyone else.

  • Caroll

    I think that in many ways, we (the United States) are the Capitol from the Hunger Games – or Omelas from The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.

  • heckblazer

    Not long ago there was a huge controversy about Ikea.  It revolved around the fact that the company had opened up a foreign factory to take advantage of lax safety and environmental laws, low prevailing wages and benefits and a strong anti-union climate.  The outrage of course was over  the company sacrificing the welfare of those workers just shave of a few more krona from the price of their furniture.

    The factory was located in Virginia.

  • etv13

    I have some problems with “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” as a metaphor for relationships between rich and developing countries.  The citizens of Omelas were faced with a magic setup where helping the child in the cellar would destroy things for everyone else; international trade has made some progress toward making things better for everyone, and in fact, we will all get richer as people in developing countries grow rich enough to buy our products.

    That said, just as the people who walked away from Omelas didn’t do a damned thing to help that child in the cellar, so too the people who refuse to sully their hands with goods made in developing countries do no good for the people choosing between poorly paid work and starvation.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    We buy the poor for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals, and even sell the sweepings of the wheat.

  • Alger

    That over-used formula applies here: Un/der-employment is a feature, not a bug, of the capitalist system.
    The poor, the desperate, the enslaved are necessary to keep wages in check for the rest of us lucky enough to not be working in production. This is how the system (for want of a better word) “works”. Raising the standard of pay for everyone simply leads to inflation, so we sacrifice the poor on the altar of general prosperity.
    This isn’t even a controversial point, it’s been mainstream social science thinking at least since Thorstein Veblen.

    To fix this problem the real question of this post should be not “How can this be fixed so that the poor can afford luxuries?”, but instead “Why do we perpetuate a market for luxuries?”
    This seems to me to be entirely an issue of character.

  • LouisDoench

     How do you eliminate luxuries? How do you define them? Are my hiking boots a luxury? A good pair of shoes? A nice book? Dinner out with my wife? Art? Hobbies? A liberal arts education? Aren’t these the things an egalitarian should want for everybody?

  • Alger

     Well, by definition, a luxury is something you can do without. I agree that is too inclusive since one could endure a very unsatisfactory and horrifyingly bleak life. Can we agree at least that we have taken things too far in the opposite direction?

    By the market of luxuries I mean the extraordinary appetite our culture has for conspicuous consumption. This is entirely a matter of character and discipline, things we no longer seem to value. Somehow we have become completely comfortable with the idea that enslavement and war are acceptable costs for us to pay for the sake of paltry comforts.

    I won’t claim special abilities or purity here, in fact I fail pretty often. But I do try.

    My desire for equality is there, but it’s pretty obvious that the entire world cannot live at the standard of even the average poor in the US. The world can’t even support the US at this standard.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Alan-Alexander/502988241 Alan Alexander

     Personally, I would consider a luxury item to be an item that is valuable merely for the sake of its own existence rather than any practical benefit it provides. A car is a arguably necessity in this country, at least for people who don’t live in cities with decent mass transit. A $100,000 car is a luxury, because there is nothing about that car that justifies its price tag other than the fact that it allows you to show that you are wealthy enough to afford it. Clothing is a necessity, but generally jewelry is a luxury because you get nothing from adorning yourself with jewels except the satisfaction of flaunting your wealth. OTOH, bankruptcy law generally makes an exception for wedding rings, which are usually not treated as luxury items (or, if they are, are subject to a much higher value of exemption). A home is not a luxury, even though you don’t need to own a home as opposed to renting, but a second home certainly is.

  • http://lliira.dreamwidth.org/ Lliira

    you get nothing from adorning yourself with jewels except the satisfaction of flaunting your wealth

    Wow. Jewelry is certainly a luxury, but to say that the only thing people get from wearing jewelry is the satisfaction of flaunting wealth is incredibly  narrow-minded and, like all narrow-minded things, completely wrong. Jewelry is pretty. People like to wear pretty things. I like to wear pretty things. And that’s not even taking into account liking to wear something that has sentimental value, or that you’re proud of creating, or that you think makes you look nice, or that even shows your religious or political affiliation, which a lot of jewelry does.

    Maybe the Amanda Steeles of the world like jewelry for wealth-flaunting reasons, but I’ve never personally known any woman who does. Thanks for insulting all of us.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Alan-Alexander/502988241 Alan Alexander

     I didn’t say pretty things. I said jewels. And by that, I did not mean a simple crucifix, a wedding band, a pendant made by a local artist or anything like that. You can be quite pretty without wearing $20,000 worth of gold and diamonds dug out of the ground for you by an African peasant struggling to survive in a conflict zone.

  • http://lliira.dreamwidth.org/ Lliira

    Citrines and garnets and amethysts are jewels. There are conflict-free diamonds and gold in the world, they are easy to find on the internet, and most jewels are not diamonds and most jewels are not set in gold.

    Yeah, you could have said it better. Better yet, you could have not said it at all. Maybe you should just stop with the mansplaining. You did, in fact, insult me and most other women in the world and lots of other men as well. I doubt you will admit it, so just. Stop.

  • hapax

     

    generally jewelry is a luxury because you get nothing from adorning
    yourself with jewels except the satisfaction of flaunting your wealth.

    Err, some of us consider jewelry to be art.

    Some of us design jewelry as a form of art.

    And when I wear my great-grandmother’s wedding ring, worn by my grandmother and my mother before me, and which I will someday leave to my daughter, the joy that I feel is not exactly “the satisfaction of flaunting my wealth.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Alan-Alexander/502988241 Alan Alexander

    Okay, I probably should have phrased that better, but I stand by the statement that  jewelry (other than costume jewelry) is generally considered a luxury item. And while you may derive both pleasure and profit from designing jewelry, the people who purchase it from you are purchasing your creations as luxury items, not as necessities of living.

  • http://deird1.dreamwidth.org Deird

    Clothing is a necessity, but generally jewelry is a luxury because you get nothing from adorning yourself with jewels except the satisfaction of flaunting your wealth.

    *nods*

    When I wear my favourite earrings, I’m flaunting my wealth of six whole dollars!

    When I wear my favourite bracelet, I’m flaunting my wealth of not being raised in an orphanage, and thereby having relatives give me stuff they don’t want anymore!

    When I wear my favourite necklace – not costume jewellery, but actual jewels – I’m flaunting my wealth of having twenty uni friends decide to chip in on a present of a cross, so that they could show me they valued me and my ridiculous faith, even if they did think it was ridiculous!

    ***

    While jewellery is not a “necessity”, it is in no way something I wear to “flaunt my wealth”. Not even the piece that is the second-most expensive thing I’ve ever owned.

  • Alger

     I think that we are confusing cost with value.

    Economists to the contrary, the real worth of a commodity is usually not equal to its market price. If it were then we would pay more for food when we were hungry, and there would be no point in comparison shopping because the more expensive item would always be the better buy.

    Maybe I made a mistake when I used the word “luxury”. What I meant to suggest is the virtue of thrift. Thrift is the careful considered consumption of items of lasting value.  In this casting, luxury is selfish consumption.

    Jewelery that brings joy to the wearer and has real personal worth independent and beyond its material value is not a luxury for the same reasons that a good $0.50 used paperback has far more worth than a badly written $50 first edition hardcover.

    To return to the topic of the original posting; the thrifty person adds the cost of war and enslavement in their evaluation of a potential purchase. Anything that costs more in suffering than its value is a luxury.

  • etv13

    I don’t think enslavement and war are acceptable costs to pay for our comforts, but I also don’t think they’re necessary costs.  Japan went from being a poor, war-ravaged, occupied country after WWII to being a pretty rich country to a large degree by producing goods for export.  At first,”Made in Japan” was synonymous with “Cheap and shoddy.”  Now they are known for the quality and sophistication of their products.  South Korea has moved in the same direction.  India has a long way to go, but it has made great strides in the last couple of decades.

    And there are lots of luxuries that don’t put a big strain on the planet:  high-quality haircuts, massages, facials, psychotherapy, live entertainment, well-prepared food served by skilled, pleasant servers.  We don’t need $200 sneakers and overflowing closets to live lives of luxury.

  • Alger

     Two responses.

    1; my point is that the enslavement of others and endless war are currently an acceptable price to the majority of Americans to pay for our standard of living. Do I think that’s acceptable? I hope I have made it clear that I don’t. Do I think the general public cares? I do, but that doesn’t seem to translate into change very easily. Knowing people suffer for your comforts and not changing your consumption habits is accepting that enslavement and war are acceptable costs.

    2; About Japan; I am extremely wary of this argument. I feel it has two basic flaws.
    The first is that it ignores that there isn’t room for everyone at the top. I mean that observation as a matter of economic structure, of resource availability, and of plain cussed reality.  In the same way that encouraging everyone to maximize their income potential by becoming investment bankers is foolish, not every country can work its way up to the third largest global economy by producing cheap consumer goods. Too many countries tried this and failed to vault into the  top tier for this to be a valid argument. As my grandma used to say “The world needs ditchdiggers too”, and the global majority will always be assigned trench duty because someone needs to do it.
    The second objection is that this is, inherently, a meritocratic argument, and meritocratic arguments always seem to end up blaming the loser for their failure to succeed. Also the criteria for success are biased in predictable ways. A thought experiment: against what criteria are you measuring when you say India has made great strides, but Cuba hasn’t? The only one that can be consistently applied is that India has refashioned its economy more open to the USA while Cuba hasn’t. Cuba for all of its other failures and abuses does still offer a higher universal standard of living than that of India. India succeeds because we like them and Cuba fails because we don’t.

  • Tonio

     

    As my grandma used to say “The world needs ditchdiggers too”, and the
    global majority will always be assigned trench duty because someone
    needs to do it.

    While I don’t disagree in principle, what you describe is not the issue here. James Loewen points out in Lies Across America that the extravagant lifestyles of antebellum slaveowners was made possible only by the privations and brutalities of slavery. Any change that would have benefited the slaves, even a small improvement instead of full freedom, would have meant less luxury for the slaveowners. That massive inequality of wealth and power was an artificial condition and had nothing to do with whether the work done by the slaves needed doing. The only people who benefited from the system were the slaveowners.

    Ideally an economy should benefit everyone in it instead of benefiting a few at the top at the expense of everything else. As I mentioned earlier, I think reducing the inequalities of power would have the effect of reducing inequality of wealth, instead of addressing the latter directly. There’s a very strong argument that in oligarchical societies, everything ends up geared to supporting the tiny minority, with stagnation of scientific and intellectual pursuits that might otherwise benefit the societies.

  • etv13

    I don’t think that people actually do suffer for my comforts, or that enslavement  and war in the developing word are what it takes to feed and clothe Americans.  Rather, I think the developing world is a very poor place that is gradually growing richer as Americans and others in the developed world purchase their products.  If by “changing your consumption habits” you mean simply refusing to buy those products because their makers’ wages and working conditions are not up to our standards, then I think such a change would harm rather than benefit people in poor countries.  Are there other things one can do to help people in developing countries?  Sure there are; we can fund vaccination and education, pressure U.S. companies to improve the working conditions of the people who make their products, etc.    Simply saying I won’t buy those sneakers or that t-shirt or whatever is not beneficial.

    Who cares if there is room for everyone at “the top”?   Why should we conceptualize the world economy as a hierarchical structure?  Of course not every country can flourish by producing cheap consumer goods.  But for many countries, as for Japan, the production of cheap consumer goods can be a step on the way to something else.  Japan is no longer in that business.  China is.  India exports services, such as computer programming and call-center operations.

    I said nothing about Cuba — or Mexico, or Vietnam, or Costa Rica, or dozens of other countries.  I am not saying that India is succeeding while Cuba is failing.  You are arguing with a phantom of your own invention.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Patrick-McGraw/100001988854074 Patrick McGraw

    And there are lots of luxuries that don’t put a big strain on the
    planet:  high-quality haircuts, massages, facials, psychotherapy

    Psychotherapy is a luxury like high-quality haircuts? Check your privilege.

  • etv13

    Kiddo, I pay for psychotherapy at rates that mean I haven’t had a haircut for over a year.  But for the millions of people who would have to give up meals instead of haircuts, yes, psychotherapy is a luxury.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Patrick-McGraw/100001988854074 Patrick McGraw

     Millions of people do not have access to, or cannot afford, healthy food, clean drinking water, vaccinations, or birth control. Does that make them luxuries?

    My psychotherapy and psychiatric medications  are paid for by the same socialized health care that paid for my dialysis, my kidney transplant, and that now pays for my anti-rejection medications. Are those luxuries?

    And “Kiddo” someone whose psychotherapy is not the reason they are still alive.

  • etv13

    Arguing about what is or is not a “luxury” is kind of like arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.  At one extreme,yes, there are things we can all agree are luxuries:  season tickets to the opera, private jets, etc.  But then we have Liira saying a dinner cooked by someone else is a luxury.  Hiking boots are a luxury.  By that definition, many forms of psychotherapy are a luxury. I say that as someone whose teenage daughter, absent the efforts of both a psyychologist and a psychiatrist, was completely unable to get through a day of school.   And for some people, who can’t get by putting their long hair in a bun, as I do, but need to have their hair off their collars and not looking amateurishly chopped off for a job interview, professional haircuts aren’t a luxury either.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Patrick-McGraw/100001988854074 Patrick McGraw

     Without psychotherapy, I would be dead. So would my sister.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Alan-Alexander/502988241 Alan Alexander

     A related point: If I purchase something that is more expensive with the expectation that it will last for years as opposed to the cheapest model available that will break down after a year, is that a luxury purchase?

  • http://lliira.dreamwidth.org/ Lliira

    Hiking boots, certain books, dinner at a restaurant, and a liberal arts education are absolutely all luxuries. Access to art and books are both based a lot more on where you live than on your income. There are more, more accessible, and bigger libraries and museums in big cities than elsewhere.

    Dinner at a restaurant is absolutely a luxury. So are hiking boots. No one needs to pay to be served dinner by others. No one needs hiking boots, unless their job involves hiking. I do not actually want hiking boots for everyone. I’m too busy worrying that people do not have food, shelter, and health care. 

  • etv13

    You’re going to put a lot of working class and even middle class people out of work when you close all those restaurants and boot factories, Lliira, and how will they pay for food, shelter, and health care then?

  • http://lliira.dreamwidth.org/ Lliira

    When did I say I didn’t think anyone should go to restaurants or buy hiking boots? I didn’t. I said they were luxuries. And I know I never said I thought no one should have luxuries.

  • etv13

    That’s how I read your statement about not wanting everyone to have hiking boots.  As it was a misreading, we’re not actually that far apart.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    People like Lars Osberg and Pierre Fortin, among others, have written of
    the ways in which Canadian politicians since Mulroney’s time have
    implicitly accepted the costs of a “low/zero inflation” policy by
    permitting higher unemployment. The justification on the part of the
    Bank of Canada is that the BoC must maintain a “credible” monetary policy.

    http://myweb.dal.ca/osberg/classification/book%20chapters/Credibility%20Mountain/MOUNTAIN.pdf

    Lars Osberg’s “credibility mountain” quantifies the waste and drag this
    is on the Canadian economy, and he wrote that thing 17 years ago. Things
    haven’t changed that much.

  • Guest

    See, we’re talking about this like it isn’t a zero-sum game.  And maybe it isn’t, on a small or even national scale. But on the WORLD scale?  Absolutely it’s a zero sum game.  

    \
    World GDP-  thats all the stuff and money you and I and Nigeria and China and Liberia and everywhere else make-  63.3 trillion dollars.  Sounds like a lot, right?

    Divide it by 7 billion.  It works out, roughly, to 10,000 per capita.   Do you make more that 10 grand?  I make sandwiches at a sub shop, and I make more than 10 grand a year. On a global scale, every person that makes 10,030 is taking 30 bucks a year away from someone, somewhere else.  Because there’s only 63 trillion to go around in the first place.  

    And sure, in Liberia, 10 grand a year is fantastic wealth- but only because most of the other people there are making less than one grand a year.  Over here though- you want to live on ten grand a year?  I  sure as hell don’t.   But ok- we get rid of luxuries.  Go back to basic subsistence.
     \
    Coolio-  you pick which two or three billion people die. Sure, I hate GMOs, and pesticides, and the cost of drugs and and and…\But Ethiopia?  Ethiopia fuckin’ LOVES GMOs. And factory farms. And US government subsidies that keep wheat cheap as BALLS.    So do all those NGOs that buy the wheat and make the  food that gets trucked into a dozen countries around the world.  Giant Iowa farms make cheap wheat the way Wal-Mart sells  cheap clothes- in enough bulk, small profits add up. 

    And all that  wheat we grow?  Fertilizers derived from oil make it possible, along with genetically modified high-yield wheat.  Let alone all the chemicals required to keep bugs from eating it.  Yeah, sure, whatever- spots on my apples, leave me the birds and the bees.  Except, again- America feeds a significant chunk of the world, in part because of pesticides. Sure, we could  stop using them- and greatly increase the fraction of grains consumed by pests, sending food prices skyrocketing across the entire globe. \
    Oh- here’s a good one. DDT. Evil with a capital E, right?  Well, no. In a lot of places, its a huge debate. See, DDT is REALLY good at killing mosquitoes, although it’s bad for birds. In the US, that’s a disgusting luxury- just empty your old pails and get some calamine lotion.  Of course, in the US, barely anyone dies of malaria.  When bug bites might mean slow death, “Silent Spring” sounds a lot better as long as there’s no droning mosquitoes. 

    \Liberal arts educations aren’t necessities?  Well- maybe. If you like tuberculosis.  See, “making new drugs” isn’t just a thing you can do with enough elbow grease and yankee ingenuity. It takes high level  skills. It takes years- often decades of a person doing nothing but getting an education- an education that itself requires a lot of spare resources- college professors don’t really “make” anything in the physical sense.  It takes high tech labs that themselves require people with years of education to design and so on and so forth.  Yes, pills are really expensive. Yes, some are overpriced. But we forget that making one new drug that works requires years of effort, literally thousands of failed results, often failed results that are extremely expensive.  Even lab mice cost money- let alone a drug that gets all the way to human trials before failing.  All those scientists need to be able to make enough to afford that education, plus make enough that they want to, you know, make drugs instead of doing something easier.  Even with a free education, given the choice between getting a college degree and doing whatever for 40k a year, or making drugs for 240k a year- well, that money is an incentive. 
    \It’s  nice to believe we can all live happily together. And maybe we can- with half the population, and about half the lifespan, with strict birth control policies.  But we can’t simaltaneously  go “We all want to be equal” and “You can have all the babies you want!”  The earth has a sustainable population with minimal technological usage. That population is not seven billion. 

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

    Divide it by 7 billion.  It works out, roughly, to 10,000 per capita.   Do you make more that 10 grand?  I make sandwiches at a sub shop, and I make more than 10 grand a year. On a global scale, every person that makes 10,030 is taking 30 bucks a year away from someone, somewhere else.  Because there’s only 63 trillion to go around in the first place.  

    Only not really. Money isn’t gold. There’s no such thing as “all the money” as an independent concept. The total amount of money in the world is *by definition* exactly the amount it would cost to buy all the goods and services in the word. 

    So the real question is not “is there enough money in the world to pay everyone a living wage,” but “is there enough *stuff* in the world to give everyone a livable share.” And if not, *why* not? The world is full of arable land that isn’t being efficiently farmed, it’s full of factories that have been closed down because it’s “cheaper to outsource”. It’s full of people who don’t have jobs. 

    If putting all the people in the world to work at making stuff and providing services still produced fewer goods and services than were necessary to support all the people in the world, then that would be one thing. But we’ve got people out of work and closed factories and fruit rotting on the vines. 

    And that means that we *could* raise everyone’s standard of living. That shortage of money you describe, where there isn’t enough money to give everyone enough to live off of ? That’s an *artificial* shortage. The only thing stopping us from quite literally just *declaring by fiat* that there’s now enough money to pay everyone a living wage is that *the people with the power to make that happen are the same people who stand to benefit from artifically creating vast disparities of wealth.*

  • Gotchaye

    I don’t think it makes sense to talk about world economics as zero-sum, but it probably is overly optimistic to suppose that a multinational would /really/ be better off if it paid a living wage to all its workers, because then they could afford to buy from it.  Mostly it would be subsidizing other companies by doing that, and even if the workers used a very large share of the extra income to buy from the company, it probably still wouldn’t make sense as an investment.

    Over very small time periods, yes, this is all basically zero sum.  If a company pays more for its sweatshop labor, that’s straight-up transferring wealth to poorer people (which would be good, but obviously not something the shareholders would be happy with).

    But over longer time periods, giving people wealth lets them develop skills.  Lots of people in first-world countries have legitimately good jobs.  They’re not exploited and they’re not (directly) exploitative.    They’re also hugely more productive than sweatshop labor.  It wouldn’t take /that/ much of an investment to mechanize sweatshop labor, and if the laborers were educated and allowed to develop skills they could be producing much more than they are now.  We’d all (very obviously, I think) be better off a hundred years from now if we worked very hard to educate the world and allowed everyone to develop their skills.

    I’m not sure if the problem is only one of collective action or if there are also time horizon issues.  Maybe we could all be better off only ten years from now, if only everyone would work together (tariffs according to labor conditions policy type things) .  I hope this is the case, and if we have reason to think it is then it makes selling policy change a lot easier.  But maybe it would take longer than most people are willing to wait for a return on their investment, and we’d be sacrificing in order to make future generations much better off.  That’s a harder sell, though it’s still worth trying.

    More cynically, it’s all about power relations, and the powerful are perfectly happy to forgo actual material improvements in their own lives in order to maintain their relative status.  God I hope that’s not how it is.

  • Guest


     It wouldn’t take /that/ much of an investment to mechanize sweatshop labor, and if the laborers were educated and allowed to develop skills they could be producing much more than they are now.

    /
    /
    /Producing…what, exactly?  If you mechanized sewing shoes, then the shoe-sewers go to college and….what?  The US is currently a service economy- we shuffle papers to make orders for stuff made in other countries.  Everyone can’t be a service economy.  Nor can everyone be an artist, or a scientist, or a doctor./
    /
    /Honestly- not being devils advocate, and certainly not happy about it- I honestly think that slavery of  some type or another might just be part of the way economics works./
    /
    /
    Think about it.  Prior to 1500, the Old World was, either directly or indirectly subsidized by slaves.  In Greco-Roman times, slavery was just an unquestioned reality. Later, slavery was either direct, like in the Muslim and African world, or indirect, like the peasant classes of China and Europe.  Even in periods where slavery died out across much of Europe (not very long periods), it was still a crucial part of their economy- Slaves dug gold in Africa, and carried burdens through a thousand trade routes.  Even when slaves were not in demand back in Europe, traders could always sell them within Africa or the Muslim world.   In all cases, the dominant empires utilized slaves directly most of the time- the Spanish, Portuguese and Venetians grew to power  utilizing slaves heavily at the same time as the English were a backwater of freedom- when the English started using slaves to grow sugar and work on plantations (first in the Maldives, then Jamaica) the British empire really began.  
    ////

    It wasn’t until the 19th century that formal slavery was questioned in a significant way.  And even when it was outlawed in name, much like today it simply changed forms. The black slaves of the Americas were replaced with sharecroppers, or, for the British empire- the peoples of the far East. In the US, slavery went from direct enslavement in the South to sharecropping in the south and effective wage slavery in the north. When the wage slavery in the north was ending, the wage slavery was outsourced to China, or South America.  Today, we have cheap goods because of slave labor- but the same was true of middle class people in 1910, and 1850.   There has never been a significant period, empire, or polity in the history of the world that wasn’t dependent on some form of slavery to a significant degree.  And, truly honestly- I’m not sure, barring a post scarcity society, that we can make one.  At the very least, we can’t have one without a massive spike in the price of everything.  Clothes, shoes, food- even housing. A great deal of construction and food production in the US is underwritten by illegal and vastly underpaid hispanic labor.  If tomato growers actually had to pay everyone that worked for them 7.15 an hour….it’d be a game changer. Consider how the price of many food items relies on tomatoes being an almost negligible expense. \I’d like Utopia. I’d like everyone to do their hearts desire all the day long- but I don’t think many people dream of sweeping floors or running a drill press- but on a strict, “keep civilization ticking” scale, both those jobs are of significantly greater importance that artist or writer, and an order of magnitude more important than sports stars or actors. Again- maybe, MAYBE, with a lot fewer people and some careful planning as well as more centralization, we could make it work. Bring the population down to 2-3 billion and move them all to the Americas, and it might be possible to eliminate slavery as a fundamental economic force, but….

  • heckblazer

    Tomato pickers are generally paid by the weight harvested and not by the hour; the pay estimate I’ve seen for Florida tomato pickers is in the ballpark of $50 for a seven-hour day of picking, or about $7.14 an hour.  If we decided that these workers deserved more pay (and they do!) and generously doubled the piece rate, the labor cost of harvesting tomatoes would skyrocket to… around $0.03 a pound.  I think we could pretty easily pay more for those at the bottom by taking a bit off the top, e.g. with the 2011 compensation given to the highest paid American CEO you could instead have given every Wal-Mart employee a $250 bonus.

  • Ross Thompson

    See, DDT is REALLY good at killing mosquitoes

    No, it’s really not. DDT resistance is now near-universal in mosquitoes, and when it does kill them, it also kills all the things that feed on mosquitoes, so the next season they come back in far, far greater numbers.

    The world-wide cases of malaria have dropped precipitously since we stopped using pesticides as the main method of control (The one exception is India, whose malaria problem is as bad as ever, and they use four-fifths of the world’s supply of DDT). America, Italy, Panama and a dozen other countries eradicated malaria without ever using DDT, in many cases before DDT was ever used as a pesticide.

    The trick is to treat malaria in humans, so that the mosquitoes can’t become infected and spread it to others; and to stop mosquitoes from biting people, for which bed nets work far better than pesticides.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    The obvious solution to the need for social stratification is to have machines do all the boring dirty work. The challenge is to shift social expectations to the notion that we don’t need jobs to survive.

  • Alger

     Have you even read Vonnegut’s ‘Player Piano’?

  • BaseDeltaZero

    Wow. Jewelry is certainly a luxury, but to say that the only thing people get from wearing jewelry is the satisfaction of flaunting wealth is incredibly  narrow-minded and, like all narrow-minded things, completely wrong. Jewelry is pretty. People like to wear pretty things. I like to wear pretty things. And that’s not even taking into account liking to wear something that has sentimental value, or that you’re proud of creating, or that you think makes you look nice, or that even shows your religious or political affiliation, which a lot of jewelry does.

    Yet, an education or professionally cooked food are intolerable frivoloties.

    The earth has a sustainable population with minimal technological usage. That population is not seven billion.

    A non-moron would note the first part of the sentence.

    Divide it by 7 billion.  It works out, roughly, to 10,000 per capita.   Do you make more that 10 grand?  I make sandwiches at a sub shop, and I make more than 10 grand a year. On a global scale, every person that makes 10,030 is taking 30 bucks a year away from someone, somewhere else.  Because there’s only 63 trillion to go around in the first place.  

    You’re making the assumption that that 63 trillion is an absolute.  It isn’t.  It can be increased by efficiency and increased production.

    Producing…what, exactly?  If you mechanized sewing shoes, then the shoe-sewers go to college and….what?  The US is currently a service economy- we shuffle papers to make orders for stuff made in other countries.  Everyone can’t be a service economy.  Nor can everyone be an artist, or a scientist, or a doctor.

    Not necessarily college as technical school.  They then go to work producing… goods for the other 85% of the world that currently can’t afford anything but the 15%’s scraps.  Alternatively, they… do nothing (well, not ‘nothing’ but no formal job…).  Because your productivity has now reached a level best summarized as ‘lol’, and when you reach the point at which ‘you can afford to provide the whole world with goods using a small percentage of the world’s labor pool, the correct answer is ‘Leisure Society Party Time!’ not ‘FUCK THE BROWN PEOPLE’.  If you’re that worried people will become lazy and slovenly, you can have everyone work in shifts – say, Group A takes over working for 3 months, then they can faff off to do whatever it is they’re going to do while Group B takes their turn…

    Have you even read Vonnegut’s ‘Player Piano’?

    Because Kurt Vonnegut is omniscient, and his opinions on society should be taken as gospel.  Also, there is no such thing as artistic or intellectual jobs that you really can’t replace with a computer, without that computer also qualifying as a citizen… and it’s not like anyone actually likes doing work…

    Besides, we already know from Star Trek that involuntary work has been eliminated in the future, and we all act out solely out of desire for self-improvement.  (And green skined babes?)


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