Economics

These Boots Are Made for Talking

The fuzzy math and goofy logic of government-goosed employment

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According to a report from a shoe store in Campbellsville, Kentucky, the Army Corps of Engineers "created or saved" nine jobs when it used money allocated by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to buy nine pairs of work boots. The Wall Street Journal reports that the store's owner, frustrated by the government's confusing online forms, enlisted the help of his 42-year-old daughter, who figured nine—the number of people who would use the boots on the job—made as much sense as any other answer.

The economic kick supposedly delivered by those work boots is emblematic of the errors and exaggerations that pervade the job numbers proudly cited by the Obama administration as evidence that the Recovery Act is working. The highly labor-intensive boots also illustrate the goofy logic of government-goosed employment, which aims to maximize jobs and therefore prizes inefficiency.

Last month the Obama administration bragged that $160 billion in spending authorized by the $787 billion Recovery Act had "created or saved 640,329 direct jobs" as of September 30. Last week the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that 58,386 of these jobs were tied to projects that had not received or spent any money yet. Whoops.

Meanwhile, newspapers across the country have been digging up one example after another of erroneous job numbers, including premature reporting, double counting, stray zeros, raises counted as new jobs, jobs created in congressional districts that do not exist, phantom jobs attributed to housing assistance for low-income renters, and minor purchases that, like the Army Corps' boot order, are implausibly credited with creating several jobs each. David Freddoso and Mark Hemingway of the Washington Examiner are keeping track of these reports, and as of this writing they count 90,489 jobs "not really created or saved."

The biggest source of uncertainty about these numbers is the very notion of a job "saved." While "recipients are expected to report accurately on their use of funds," the GAO notes, "what they are less able to say is what they would have done without the benefit of the program."

Since the Obama administration mixes the mushy jobs "saved" in with the firmer jobs "created," it's hard to tell which is which. But two-thirds of the jobs are attributed to Education Department spending, and these are overwhelmingly public school positions that allegedly would have been lost to layoffs without federal aid.

The New York Times reports that "some school districts said that they might not have actually laid off teachers without the stimulus money." The Times is too polite to add that the rest—the ones that claim they're sure these jobs would have been cut but for the federal money—are lying. In the face of uncertainty, recipients of federal money aimed at boosting employment have a powerful incentive to err on the side of reporting more jobs rather than fewer.

Even if recipients are honest, diligent, and psychic, the jobs they report are not, strictly speaking, jobs. Instead they are "full-time equivalents": the number of hours in a quarter for which employees are paid with Recovery Act money, divided by a full three months of work. This calculation invites recipients to inflate their numbers by counting all hours on stimulus-funded projects, instead of just the hours worked by people who otherwise would have been unemployed.

Even when done correctly, the quarter-by-quarter accounting exaggerates the number of "direct jobs" linked to stimulus spending. When President Obama promised the stimulus would produce 3.5 million jobs, most Americans did not imagine he was talking about three-month gigs.

But the most fundamental flaw in the president's stimulus hype is the notion that more jobs are always better (which also underlies his claim that global warming will be a boon to the economy as long as we spend lots of money to mitigate it). According to this standard, if the government really did find a supplier who spends 520 man-hours to deliver one pair of work boots, it should buy as many as possible.

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason and a nationally syndicated columnist.

© Copyright 2009 by Creators Syndicate Inc.

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87 responses to “These Boots Are Made for Talking

  1. These boots are made for looting, and that’s just what they’ll do.
    One of these days these boots…you get the idea.

    1. Note to self: read headlines first.

  2. Explanations and press briefings from the White House less accurate than anything put out at the five o’clock follies in Vietnam.

    Thank goodness there are still a few journalists somewhere that don’t completely swallow the garbage that the president, Gibbs, and Axelrod are peddling.

    1. People are swallowing… but that ain’t garbage.

  3. Well yes more jobs is always better if what you care about is more people employed. Economic efficiency is only a good thing to the extent that it actually helps actual human beings. In and of itself it is a nutty goal.

    1. Great observation, MNG. So let’s have the feds stipulate that no federal highway funds can be spent on any job using mechanized equipment. All road work will be done by workers using picks, shovels and wheelbarrows. No more unemployment!!!

      1. Oh, no! Picks, shovels and wheelbarrows are far too efficient to maximize the desired number of bodies in the workforce! Either bare hands or, if you insist on some sort of labor-saving (oh, the term itself is anathema!) device, nothing more efficient than tweezers will do!

    2. Economic efficiency = higher production per capita.
      Higher production per capita = higher wages.

      Workers cannot earn more than they produce, at least not in the long-term. The UAW will find this out within a couple years, after taxpayers threaten to kill the next pol who offers GM another $25MMM bailout, and they finally go belly up.

    3. Jobs don’t exist for their own sake. If you started a business and sought to hire workers for that business, you wouldn’t be hiring just as some kind of social welfare. You would be hiring because you need workers to produce whatever it is you are selling.

      That’s why you would try to hire the most qualified workers you could find. If you were just hiring people for the sake of employing them, you could take the first people who wander in.

    4. Employment is exactly what the stimulus and spending is destroying.

    5. MNG, I once thought that your and Tony’s posts were just silly comments put in by Reason as a joke. I thought, “no one can be that stupid”.

      I guess I was wrong. No one can make up the crap that comes out of your mouth.

  4. Our pal Tim Rutten delivers some nice stupid for us: http://www.latimes.com/news/op…..984.column

    1. It’s hard to imagine any contemporary cable system dropping Fox News simply because Beck is an offensively dangerous demagogue — not with his ratings at least. His new foray into politics, though, presents Rupert Murdoch’s network with a profound challenge. Is it willing to become the platform for an extremist political campaign, or will it draw a line as even the authoritarian Catholic Church of the 1940s did? CNN recently parted ways with its resident ranter, Lou Dobbs — who now confirms he’s weighing a presidential bid.

      Does Fox see a similar problem with Beck — and, if not, why?

      1. In my fantasy world we have a Palin-Beck ticket for the GOP in 2012. I can only hope both of these persons get as much national exposure as faces for conservativism as possible.

        Oh, and I’m married to Samantha Fox circa 1988.

        1. That would only be awesome if Lou Dobbs ran against them as an independent. And the Democratic Party were split by, um, let’s say…Barney Frank and Alex Grayson.

        2. Naughty pols need love too.

      2. The link insinuates that Beck is anti-semitic.

        Is there any actual evidence of this? I mean the guy is only recorded for about 5 hours every day.

  5. Let’s say you have a thousand dollars with which you are going to purchase one of these omelets:
    http://www.colbertnation.com/t…..000-dishes

    On your way to enjoy your absurd meal a thief takes your money (yes, by force bitches!) and uses it to by medecine for sick people. He has put that money to a much more productive (well people can work more productively than sick people; and while the omelet seller loses the medecine maker gains) and humane (because human life and welfare is morally important) use. Libertarians would seem to me to be unable to get past that first point (but he stole, he stole, oh how he did not deserve it! Oh the unfairness of it all [note these are the same people who love saying “life ain’t fair” when someone needs help]), but it seems to me that overall what has happened is a good thing. This is the logic behind these stimulus type programs (or most government tax person A to help person B and C programs), I imagine.

    Now, before you wet yourselves, as an empirical matter most of this is rather dubious imo. Most people put their money to more productive uses than $1,000 dollar omelets, and the government tends to be pretty wasteful (for reasons Mises explains rather well I think). But it’s not so horrible in theory (TEH SLAVERY!).

    1. Because that $1000 you pay for the omelet is just burned out back of the restaurant. It doesn’t pay the waitstaff or the cooks or the dishwasher or the expediter or the owner of the restaurant who might use it to open another location to provide jobs or just plain spend it on cars or plane rides or limos or cabs or rent (which the landlord similarly distributes through the economy in the same ways.)

      Your bullshit virtuous theft stole the money from all those people as well. To give to those greedy pharmaceutical companies.

      You can speak intelligently on so many subjects, but instead you repeatedly come back to this socialist nonsense.

      Anything taken from someone without their consent is theft. Even a 2nd grader can grasp that concept. What’s your problem?

      1. You can speak intelligently on so many subjects, but instead you repeatedly come back to this socialist nonsense.

        WTF?
        The “other subject” is the superiority of individuals with a terminal degree.

        1. MNG is often a contrarian jackass, but his not a subgrade moron like Chony or Morris/Edward/Fuckface.

          1. In this case, it’s not a contrarian case. It’s a straight up self-refuting case of obtuseness, “uses it to by medecine [sic] for sick people” can’t obscure this.

            He tried to posit some kind of guilt inducing situation and failed miserably. Failed in terms of embarrassing epics.

            Yet emotional usually dipthongs do better. So I’m left with the impression he’s a cry-baby afraid of the fall-out of a cooler climate.

      2. Heck, those Africans were just running around the jungle doing nothing of importance until Yankee slavers and Southern plantation owners brought them to America to grow cotton that made better clothing available to the masses everywhere.

    2. Okay, MNG… I’m a little short this month, and my house and car insurance are due. I need a couple hundred bucks, so I’ll come to your house with some armed government goons and take it out of your wallet.

      After all, if I don’t have house and car insurance, I could stand to lose a lot in legal fees or lost property should the unexpected arise.

      Get where I’m going here?

      1. Besides, you’ll “put it to much more productive use” than him.

    3. Capital idea!

    4. Funny how it is somebody else’s $1000 and not yours that gets stolen. Could that perhaps be why you’re so cool with it?

    5. It’s not the theft. It’s the fact it doesn’t ever work. It has never worked. It’s caused the great depression. It caused Japan’s lost decade. It is causing unemployment to go up and it will cause a lot worse before it’s done.

      If you want to attempt to understand why google Bastiat’s Broken Window fallacy.

    6. Why are the people sick? Their behaviors? You conveniently never say.

      What was gained by stealing from one person to give to another only so that they will be sick again? You don’t make any statement other than handing medication is always a good unshaped by the future.

      Why is no one willing to FREELY help the sick person? No one loves them? Why? Are they a ripe old bastard? Not on unfair question when someone is to have their labor taken from them.

      Are you now responsible for having HUMANELY saved the life of a (as yet unknown) serial killer? You are perhaps responsible for the good undone by your forced transfer AND the bad perhaps caused by your transfer? The rhetorical questions can go on forever.

      If you have the ability to see all ends of every action done and not done by your transfer, then you, indeed are a better man than I, and the use of Force is justified. But I somehow doubt that you, with the same hours in a day and days in a week have somehow gained a greater insight into all things, so pardon me while I tell you to take a long walk on a short pier.

      As it stands no one can see all ends to their actions. Decisions have to be made with imperfect knowledge (risk)and the consequences have to be relished or endured, then we die. The question is whether some people are going to be so taken with their oversimplifications (i.e. they THINK they indeed see all ends) that they convince themselves that Force is justified in their actions with other people. And the net of the whole thing is that THEY tell us that we have to convince THEM to stop using Force when that very attempt is clouded at the start with a mind with a penchant for oversimplification and seeing only the yings but NEVER the yangs of their transfers. Never seeing the losses that are the results of their “humane” gains. In essence it is like trying to talk someone out of their religion.

      You can’t argue with a superstitious mind.

  6. Last month the Obama administration bragged that $160 billion in spending authorized by the $787 billion Recovery Act had “created or saved 640,329 direct jobs”

    How many jobs will the government be bragging were destroyed once the loans come due on all of this “stimulus” spending?

    1. It’s not just government loans. Housing industry is going to completely collapse due to the rebate. So will real estate as all the people that took advantage of the credit that really couldn’t afford the houses default. Cash for clunkers will cause much more unemployment in the auto industry down the pike.

  7. But it’s not so horrible in theory (TEH SLAVERY!).

    That’s, like, your opinion, man. And it reeks of straw.

    1. Hey, kudos for the Coen brothers reference.

      And are you not aware of the “taxation=theft=slavery” stuff that gets thrown around here quite often?

  8. You know, the “we are under a Stalinist-National Socialist nightmare because of the public option” type of stuff? It’s pretty common.

    1. Not quite, but we’re on our way.

      Marx would disapprove of the laggardly timeframe, though, so we should quit Stalin.

      Heh, heh! Is knee-slapping funny!

  9. And are you not aware of the “taxation=theft=slavery” stuff that gets thrown around here quite often?

    Dude, i’m one of the throwers.

  10. Better a pitcher than a catcher X…

  11. MNG, it’s only gay if the catcher enjoys it.

    Or are you saying you’re tired of being reminded that taking money by force = stealing?

    1. I realize that it might be theft, I just think theft canbe right sometimes.

      If I steal 5 dollars that you were going to use to buy a cosmopolitan and use it to buy antibiotics that save a kids life, then yes, I’ve committed theft, and thank God I did.

      1. and use it to buy antibiotics that save a kids life

        Yeah that sounds great except you’re forgetting the kids of the people that work in the logging industry, paper industry, the chemical industry, the ink industry, the writers, the photographers, the retailers.. all of whom who were responsible and paid for their own kids antibiotics and didn’t push their ‘needs’ onto others.. but who will now have to because your ‘charity’ with the property of others will put them out of jobs.

        But your right, who needs a luxury such as a magazine. We can get rid of that.. I mean it’s only a tiny part of the economy, amirite?

        You need to understand your theft puts people out of jobs.

        1. It’s really not just that it puts people out of jobs, but all this theft perpetuates so many more problems.

          We really need to do better overall pointing out that each time someone gets their money taken for some “noble” purpose, it only fucks over their families – their kids, moms, dads… MNG’s fallacy is one my dad employed once while ambling around Rodeo drive here in LA.

          He was appalled by all of the ludicrous excess there… Because all he could see (like MNG) was 1 transaction. To him, it was *only* $10,000 for a purse. He failed to realize that once that money passed from some wealthy cougar to the purse designer/store, that money does not just stop there. It flows out to the employees, building owners, & suppliers and goes to buy things everyone needs, like groceries… And when the grocery store gets the money, it pays farmers, shipping companies, and on and on and on and on…… What annoys me about all this is that I never had to read Bastiat to figure this out. It’s goddamn obvious if you’re capable of rational thought.

      2. My Gawd, this MNG guy is a moron. I’m not wasting any more time with him.

  12. Lighten up, folks.

    The numbers include blow jobs.

  13. To maximize the jobs figures they should of handed out flip flops.

  14. Obviously the gov’t numbers include … blow jobs!

  15. Most of the jobs are of the blow variety.

  16. Taxes consented to are not theft. Redistributionism without consent is theft.

    It is the left that made taxes and redistributionism synonymous. They did this for their own purposes and shouldn’t complain about their success.

    1. I’m gonna have to ask you to define “consent.” Does it involve horrible consequences if I don’t “voluntarily comply?” Because that’s not consent.

      1. Consent must be meaningful to be valid. I must know as fullly as I care to about what I’m consenting to. Consent cannot be assumed or granted by a third party without that be consented to beforehand. And, most importantly, consent must alway be active, never passive.

  17. Taxation, in and of itself, is not immoral, theft or slavery. Although I have grown increasingly wary of quoting O. W. Holmes, he did utter a few quotable quotes, one of which was essentially to the effect of: “taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society.”

    Now I know some will object to this notion, but at the same time, if we read the Constitution we’re always on about here, the federal governments does indeed have at least some legitimate powers and functions. Setting aside for the moment the fact that it has gone way, way beyond those power, I have yet to see an explanation of how government should be funded other than by a tax on the people who have constituted the government.

    The purpose of government, in the eyes of many, if not most (all?) of the Framers of our government, is “to secure [the] rights [of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness].” “Governments are instituted among Men,” for that purpose, “deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

    So we yield some small measure of individual, personal sovereignty in order to secure the “blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity” – to establish a “well-ordered liberty.”

    To function, even the most limited and legitimate government (to the extent there can be such a thing) must be funded in some way – the most logical would seem to be to fund it by those who have constituted the government for the aforementioned purposes, and the simplest mechanism would seem to be a tax.

    Now, of course, the debate then launches off into questions of exactly what should be taxed, who should be taxed, what should the rate of the tax be, etc., etc., ad nauseam. But the notion that a tax of any kind, in and of itself, is inherently slavery or theft or immoral, has never made sense to me.

    I consider myself, after all, libertarian, generally in the classical Jeffersonian liberal sense, not anarchist. There is the notion of a very high degree of personal autonomy and individual freedom, and then there is chaos and lawlessness.

    So if not some kind of tax, how would the government of Libertopia be funded?

    1. Taxes consented to are not theft. Redistributionism without consent is theft.

      Ah! A useful and important distinction. And one I can agree with.

    2. I’d say the propery theoretical way to look at it is that the government has reserved the provisioning of certain services unto itself instead of leaving it to the private sector.

      But fairness in funding those services is no different than it is for paying for services in the private sector – on a user fee basis.

      Thus , to the greatest extent possible, taxes should be structured as user fees based on who is the recepient/beneficiary of the particular government activity in question.

      As it stands now, much of what government does is simply a deliberate redistribution of wealth. Almost half the population (soon to be over half) pay no federal income taxes at all. The other half who do pay virtually all of them are certainly not getting virtually all of the government services in exchange for their money.

      1. Contra Holmes, taxes are what we pay because we aren’t a civilized society. A civilized society would have citizens who recognized they need to pay for the services they use, without being coerced to do so, supplemented by philantrophy for those appreciative to have a community that recognized their worth and liberty.

      2. Can you tell me where the idea that 50% of people don’t pay federal income tax? This is another “serious question” because it sounds odd.

        1. It’s not that they don’t pay, it’s that they receive services far in excess of the little they do pay, in other words, net taxreceivers. The people on the other end are net taxpayers.

          If we both pay five dollars for a cheeseburger, and you get five dollars back and I don’t, it’s correct to say you didn’t pay for the cheeseburger you consumed.

          1. I see what you’re saying, but wouldn’t that apply to everyone? If you were broad enough in the application of the term “receiver”? Or are you referring only to the people who receive direct services?

            1. I’m not sure if I understand what your pronoun references, and thus exactly what you mean by “wouldn’t that apply to everyone”… But let me explain SF’s point a little more:

              The “cheeseburger” in this case is all the basic things government supposedly provides: Roads, police & military protection, public education, and so forth. Let’s assume that we all use an equal amount of those services (which we don’t, but just for the sake of argument). We all get taxed at different rates and so some people – the more wealthy among us are paying for these services whereas others among us are paying nothing for them because we get our withheld taxes back at the end of the year.

              So 50% (actually I suspect more than that, though I’m not going to look it up at the moment) of people aren’t actually paying for these things. Additionally, since the rich often use less of the public resources, this figure is skewed further. For instance; if you send your child to private school, you are not burdening the public school system yet you are still paying for your local district through property taxes (and Federal taxes). This isn’t a singular case though – rich people also do not use medicaid, unemployment, welfare, etc. for which again they are forced to pay for while other people who are not paying are the consumers.

              Make sense now?

              1. Yes, thank you. 🙂

    3. So we yield some small measure of individual, personal sovereignty in order to secure the “blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity” – to establish a “well-ordered liberty.”

      Some guys in Philadelphia did that 200+ years ago. I don’t remember my signature on that piece of paper, though.

      And if you say “You’re free to leave,” I’m going to track you down wherever you hide and vomit on your shoes. I wouldn’t leave my home just to get out of a robber’s way, even if there were someplace to go.

      1. I wouldn’t say you’re free to leave (although you are). But if you don’t feel bound by the Constitution, just because you didn’t agree to it, then I don’t expect you to ask for any of the protections from government force it supposedly offers.

        Are laws valid and enforceable against individuals only if they individually sign them and agree to be bound? Yeah, that will work.

        It’s pretty hard to be a nation of one.

        1. Laws are not valid when they are no longer bound by the document which legitimizes them.

          As you say we’re way past what was intended or authorized, and there is no facility to reverse it.

          So while you’re correct in theory, in practice we’re now governed by force.

    4. Thank you all for the interesting discussion. As a recovering member of Team Red / Proto-Libertarian, this is the issue that troubles me most: What are the legitimate functions of government?

      It is extremely easy for us to point out illegitimate powers. Defining where the start and stop points for governmental power is where I personally have difficulty drawing a distinction.

  18. Just once I wish one of the reporters who have been tabulating the details of the phony jobs “saved or created” would step back and make the higher level economic point that that the premise that government “creates” anything is absurd to begin with.

    All government does is redistrubte wealth that has already been created by someone in the private sector. Government merely engages in transfer payments. Any benefit to the transferee is completey cancelled out by an exactly equal detriment to the transferor.

    1. Actually, at this point they’re not really REdistributing anything. That would imply that there’s a pool of money created by the collection of taxes that is divided up among the recipients. I’d venture to say that the government is now just giving shit away and that it’s not really even OUR money that they’re doing it with. That’s not to say we’re not going to pay a heavy price for their ‘largesse’, but it’s more likely that all tax receipts will soon be going to service the interest on our debt. Just as soon as the Fed can no longer hold down interest rates. Which should be sometime next Tuesday…

  19. # A few weeks ago, the New York Times reported that $1,047 in stimulus money was used to purchase a riding mower to “cut the grass at the Fayetteville (Arkansas) National Cemetery.”

    # I went to the Toro site and couldn’t find a riding mower suitable for a home lawn for under $2,000 much less an industrial-strength mower such as one might buy for a cemetery, but that was not the point of the Times piece. This was: According to NY Times reporters Michael Cooper and Ron Nixon, the Recovery.gov website,

    “improbably claims that that single lawn mower sale helped save or create 50 jobs.”

    Um… yeeeeah. Sure.

    1. I think all lawns should be mowed by guys with scythes. Imagine how many jobs that would create!

      1. See, now you’re just part of the problem. Fingernails grow about an inch a month y’know, and people can be trained to pinch blades of grass very easily.

  20. The fact I can’t wrap my head around is that $160,000,000,000 divided by 640,329 jobs is $249,871 per job. Those are some pretty high class jobs they’ve created!

    1. Now be fair. Part of that money was spent on the signs bragging about spending the money.

      1. You know that sign is bullshit. The little guy is actually using the shovel, instead of leaning on it.

      2. Am I the only one that thinks there should be another sign just below those that says, “Hug your grandchildren. They’re paying for this”?

  21. Wow, thats some pretty serious Boots dude!

    Jess
    http://www.complete-privacy.se.tc

  22. If I steal 5 dollars that you were going to use to buy a cosmopolitan and use it to buy antibiotics that save a kids life, then yes, I’ve committed theft, and thank God I did.

    And that sickly child grows up to be a mass murderer, who kills, rapes, and eats your daughter….

  23. “the number of people who would use the boots on the job?made as much sense as any other answer.”

    Actually, she could have understated the number of jobs those boots created. In hard times like these, people who can’t afford a pair of boots may be able to afford one boot. Those boots may really have created 18 jobs. Plus we all know, it doesn’t matter how destitute someone is, they just are not going to accept a job improperly shod.

  24. if you dont believe Obama saved 640,000 jobs than you are a racist. All Obama has to do to save jobs is tell the white house statiticians to scew the numbers a little bit, like the global warming email.

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  27. My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I’m sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane. Even some cursory knowledge of Hebrew and doing some mathematics and logic will tell you that you really won’t get the full deal by just doing regular skill english reading for those books. In other words, there’s more to the books of the Bible than most will ever grasp. I’m not concerned that Mr. Crumb will go to hell or anything crazy like that! It’s just that he, like many types of religionists, seems to take it literally, take it straight.

  28. My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I’m sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane. Even some cursory knowledge of Hebrew and doing some mathematics and logic will tell you that you really won’t get the full deal by just doing regular skill english reading for those books. In other words, there’s more to the books of the Bible than most will ever grasp. I’m not concerned that Mr. Crumb will go to hell or anything crazy like that! It’s just that he, like many types of religionists, seems to take it literally, take it straight.

  29. My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I’m sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane. Even some cursory knowledge of Hebrew and doing some mathematics and logic will tell you that you really won’t get the full deal by just doing regular skill english reading for those books.

  30. My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I’m sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane

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