Invisible Hand – Chapter Nineteen: Getting Work

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In which Niall meets Enid and discovers maybe he doesn't want a job after all.

Niall changed into a little more formal clothes and wore his good shoes. He figured that he would treat it like a job interview whether it was or not. The employment office, like the housing office, looked for all the world like a private home. It had a large porch on which sat what Niall could only think of as a little old lady. Her thin white hair was held in a hair net and was arranged in a bun at the back of her head. She wore thin rim glasses somewhat low on her nose. She had to be at least 70 years old by Niall’s reckoning.

Niall approached tentatively and asked from the foot of the porch steps, “Is this the employment office?”

“If you’re looking for work it is. Come on up. Mr. Campbell, I believe? I’m Enid Lee and I run this office. Have a seat there.”

“Thank you, ma’am. Please call me Niall. I am a little new at this so I may need a little more help getting a job than the average guy.”

“How do you spell that first name? I think my computer may have gotten it wrong.”

“That’s N I A L L but pronounced like Neil or Nile, I’ve answered to either.”

“Is it Irish?” she asked, looking over her glasses.

“No. I’m a Scot by heritage, actually.”

“Most folks who ask for my help let me see their reputation. Do you know about reputation?”

“I once thought I did. Then I was sure I didn’t. Now I think I know a little but have a lot to learn.”

“Niall,” Enid said pronouncing it ‘Neil’, “I think you may do all right. What’s important for a good work placement are two things, did you make money with what you did before and did you get along well with those you worked with. The first will come easily from your payment records and your work history. The second is usually pretty obvious from me talking with you. But if there are any declarations in your file they could be relevant. In borderline cases we sometimes want to see your housing record since that’s also revealing. Oh, do you know what a declaration is?”

“Yes, ma’am. Sam Witherspoon showed me something about them when he checked my housing reputation. They’re statements from people who’ve dealt with me. The statements have been checked for factual accuracy by the computer. Is that right?”

“Well, it’s pretty close. If a declaration is positive, the computer check is generally enough. If the declaration is negative, there’s usually a more thorough check made, sometimes by police. Slander in a declaration is not a jailable offense but it would definitely go in the record of anyone who was found guilty of it and that would do them a lot of harm.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“May I see your reputation?” she said. “Usually I don’t ask, since if it’s not offered it means they don’t want me to see it. But you’re new here so I assume you just don’t know how we do these things.”

“You may see my job reputation.” Niall said in a formal voice.

“Not yet. There’s no computer out here. We’ll go inside in a few minutes and then you can give me access. First I want to get to know something about you. What should I know about you, what are you like?”

Niall was a little taken aback but due to his experiences over the last few days he had been expecting to be surprised.

“I’m just a regular guy in most ways I suppose. I just got back in the country after being away for over 15 years so everything that’s happened since the transition is news for me. I mean, it wasn’t that I didn’t know there was a transition from one kind of money to another, but I was rather preoccupied with other matters.” ‘Like staying alive and keeping others alive,’ Niall thought. “So I just figured that things would still be the same and they’re not. I mean the people look about the same. There are more people wearing white clothing, of course, but fashions don’t seem all that different. The music I’ve heard is still based on rock. But people have such different attitudes toward things that I always just took for granted. The waitress in the cafe over there almost bit my head off for suggesting that I’d like to leave her a tip.”

“I’m not surprised,” Enid said laughing. “Stephanie never worked as a waitress before the transition. Since the transition there’s no way to give her money directly. If you want her to be paid more you’d have to tell her payer. If you were to give her a luxury item it would likely be far too expensive to be warranted for just good service in a cafe. It would imply that she was your mistress or worse since you were a stranger. So what you did was rather insulting to her. If you had just thanked her with a big smile and been polite she would have taken that as evidence that the quality of her service was appreciated.”

“I guess I was lucky she didn’t belt me one,” Niall smiled.

“Oh, she wouldn’t hit you. You’ll find that the amount of violence is way down since the transition. People really take a dim view of violence any more. It’s not like when I was young and the movies, TV, and even children’s games were full of violence. Assaulting someone is one of the worst crimes one can commit so people are rather careful about it.”

“Then I was safer than I thought. But you can see that I’m just feeling my way along and making mistakes at every opportunity. I guess what I need is some kind of job that’ll let me learn my way around without messing things up too badly.”

Enid smiled thinly and said,” I must say that you seem to have gotten off to a good start. Sam Witherspoon was quite impressed with you. But then Sam is easily impressed by money. He was the same way before the transition.

“Now to get back to you. What do you like to do?”

Niall felt confused, “You mean like hobbies, or what kind of job?”

Enid sighed and shifted in her seat, “Looks like this is something else you need to learn. What do you mean by a ‘job?’ What is a ‘job’ to you?”

“Well I didn’t mean anything special by it. It’s just working for somebody. Like you giving me a job of mowing your lawn.”

“If you have a job, who pays you?” Enid acted like she was closing in for the kill, bending forward in her chair.

Niall, somewhat more confused, said, “Why your boss, ah, no. Some payer pays you.”

“So who gives you the job?”

“Ah… the payer?” by now Niall was just guessing.

A disgusted look from Enid saying, “The payer might not even know what you’re doing until after it’s done. What does the payer give to you?

“Well, money, of course.”

“What else does a payer give you?”

Niall paused, “I don’t know? I can’t think of anything else.”

“Payers,” Enid pounced, “give only money because that’s all they have. They don’t own jobs or tools or luxuries. They have nothing physical to give you. They don’t even like to give advice, as you will no doubt find.”

“OK,” Niall conceded, “so the Payers can’t give me a job.” He was wondering what her point was. This seemed silly, playing with words.

“So if the Payers can’t give you a job, who can give you a job? Think. Twenty years ago who could give you a job?”

Niall thought for a moment and said, “Twenty years ago anybody with money could hire me.” Then he paused again.

Enid prompted him, “Who paid you twenty years ago?”

“The guy with the money.”

“Who told you what to do?”

“The guy with the money. If I did what he said to do, he paid me. If I didn’t do what he said, I didn’t get paid.”

“So when that guy with the money gave you a job, he was really trading with you. He was trading his money for your obedience. The deal was that you would give him control of your behavior in exchange for some of his money.”

“Yes, roughly,” Niall agreed.

“So when he gave you a job he was giving you a chance to obey him in exchange for money.”

“In a way, yes.”

“So if the Payers are the only ones with money to give and they don’t tell you what to do, who gives you a job. Who offers you money in exchange for obedience?”

“Nobody?” Niall was getting a little tired of whatever game the old lady was playing.

“Right you are, Niall. Nobody has a job. We may work. We may even labor. We may do what other people tell us to do. But we don’t have jobs.”

“That’s just semantics. You’re just playing games with words. If I work at something and I get paid for doing that work, that’s a job no matter how you slice it.” That ought to straighten her out, Niall thought.

“But,” Enid said,” you don’t get paid for doing that work.”

“What do you mean? What else would you get paid for? When I work I expect to get paid for it.”

“I mean,” Enid said sternly, “just what I said. You don’t get paid for doing work. You get paid for the consequences of what you do. Just because you take orders and sweat and strain and keep that up day after day doing exactly what someone else tells you to do doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily ever get paid anything at all for all your efforts. That’s because now you’re paid for consequences. If the consequences include a great net benefit, then you get paid a lot of money. If the consequences have only a little net benefit, then you get paid only a little. It will not matter how hard you work nor how long it takes you. You don’t get paid by the hour and you don’t get paid by the job. You get paid by the net benefit of the consequences.” By this point Enid was sitting bolt upright pointing her finger right at Niall’s left eye and glowering.

“OK, OK, I get paid for the benefit that will happen.”

“Still not right. You get paid for net benefit, good consequences minus bad consequences. And you only get paid after the consequences are known. A farmer doesn’t get paid for the food he grows and takes to market. He gets paid for the nutrition that people receive from that food. If nobody eats the food, then he doesn’t get paid. If the food isn’t good for them, he doesn’t get paid. Are you getting this?”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m getting it.”

“So,” she continued, “when did you get paid when you had a job 20 years ago?”

“I got paid when the job was done or at the end of the week or whatever.”

“And when will you get paid now?”

“When somebody has benefited from my work.”

“That’s progress. Now if you’re working with someone who has tools for that kind of work and he hands you those tools and tells you what to do with them and you do what he tells you to do, will you get paid?”

“Sure,” Niall nodded absently, “Why not?”

Enid slapped her knee and said, a little angry, “Are you listening to me? What do you get paid for?”

Niall, tiredly, “I get paid for net benefit.”

“Do you get paid for using that guy’s tools?”

“No. I get paid for net benefit.”

“Do you get paid for doing what the guy told you to do with those tools?”

“No. I get paid for net benefit.”

“So, even if somebody gives you tools and tells you what to do with them, is he giving you a job? Remember that he will not pay you.”

“He could give me something else I wanted besides money.”

“He certainly could. Then you would have a job. You would be working for him. You would be his employee, his hireling, his subordinate. He would be your boss, your employer, your superior. Would you care about the consequences of the work you did?”

“I probably wouldn’t think much about them one way or the other.”

“The consequences would not be important to you?”

“Right.” This was really getting boring.

“Do you see why folks don’t think much of those who have jobs?”

“They don’t think much of slackers either, I notice.” Niall said, playing a trump.

“Which do you think is worse, a slacker who lives off the work of others or somebody who has a job?” Enid asked, leaning back in her chair.

“A slacker is worse, of course.”

“Who built the death camps? Who made the bombs? Who works in the bureaucracies of tyrants? People who have jobs, that’s who, people who don’t care about the consequences of what they’re doing. Who built the cars and factories that made smog and acid rain? Who clear-cut the forests? Who killed the cod? People with jobs. As soon as people get jobs they become totally irresponsible. They no longer admit to any responsibility. ‘I was just following orders.’ ‘I was just doing my job.’ ‘It’s not my fault, he told me to do it.’”

“OK,” anything to get her to shut up and get on with getting him a job, “I concede. But slackers are bad, too.”

“Who do they hurt?”


“Who do slackers hurt?”

“Well, they hurt everybody else. They use resources that other people could use for other things.”

“Correction,” Enid said abruptly, “they only use resources that other people choose to give them. Did you force Darla and Stephanie to give you lunch today?”


“Did anyone else force them to give you food?”

“Not that I know of.”

“Trust me,” Enid said authoritatively, “nobody has been able to make Stephanie do anything she didn’t want to do since she was about three years old. So how did Darla and Stephanie get the food that they gave you?”

“Somebody gave it to them?”

Enid, “Voluntarily?”

“I guess so.”

“Could Darla or Stephanie force some farmer to give them food?”

Niall laughed, picturing little Stephanie twisting the arm of a burly farmer to make him give her food. “I don’t think so.”

“So people from the farms give things to the stores and cafes, which in their turn give things to the slackers, right? And nobody is made to do it, right? So it looks like those other people have chosen to use those resources in that way doesn’t it?”

“I guess so,” Niall conceded.

“So tell me again, what harm does a slacker do?”

“He sets a bad example for the young.” Let her top that one.

“By not hurting anybody he sets a bad example?” Enid couldn’t help grinning at that one.

“Hey, if nobody works, nobody eats.” She can’t top that one either Niall thought.

“That has always been true. But lots of people seem to want to work. My business is thriving. Why is that?”

“I don’t know. Look, is this all necessary? What does all this have to do with my getting work?”

“Are you tied in that chair? Am I on your porch? Do you want to make money or are you just killing time?”

“OK, OK, go on with the lesson.” Niall said with a sour look and a tone of resignation in his voice.

“Listen to me, smart ass. If you hadn’t favorably impressed Sam I would’ve thrown you off my property a long time ago. I’m doing you a big favor, trying to keep you out of trouble and all I get is sour looks and dumbass answers. Now change your attitude and get your attention on what’s important or get your sorry ass out of here. I've got better things to do than waste my time on you.”

If there were any neighbors listening they would not have had to strain to hear any of that. Niall was shocked, stunned, and more than a little embarrassed. He could feel his face reddening.

“Yes, ma’am. I apologize,” Niall said brushing back his hair with his left hand.” I am in Rome and must learn to do as the Romans. It was most rude of me to react as I did. It was inexcusable.” His head was down and he felt as bad as he had in months.

“Damn straight. Now, once again, and think before you answer. What do you like to do?”

Niall paused, his mind racing. ‘What do I like to do? What do I find satisfying? What makes me feel good about myself?’

“I like to accomplish things.”

Enid sat quietly, waiting.

“I like to see the consequences of what I do when it’s something I can feel proud of.”

She waited.

“I like to make things better than they were before I came along.”

Enid finally spoke, “I think we can work with that. Next, I want to know what you can do well.”

“You mean besides putting my foot in my mouth?” Niall grinned a little, shyly. “I was pretty good with computers 20 years ago but I guess that my skills there are quite out of date by now.”

“You’re trying to get a job again. Change the way you’re thinking. Understand your situation in this economy. Then answer the question.”

By now Niall was beginning to sweat despite the cool air of spring. He had last felt this way when taking his oral exams for his Master's degree. What could he do that would be useful in this economy? How did his skills fit with future benefits? First one would have to be able to predict the consequences of one’s actions. Could he do that? When you look at it, that’s what he’d been doing helping those tribes in the Middle East. He was telling them if you do this, it will have that effect. They had come to rely on his predictions. Could he do the same kind of thing in this economy?

“I can put together an organization, a group of cooperating people.” He paused again. “I can see patterns in events that most people can’t see.” Another pause, then, “I don’t get bored. I can change my habits. There may be other things as well.”

“Much better.” Praise from Enid! “Now what approach would you take to get a job from a prospective employer 20 years ago?”

“I would try to show that I could do the job, that I would be honest and work hard… and be loyal to the company.”

“Ha. How did you ever get work? You should have figured out what the boss wanted from whoever got the job and offered to give him that. Remember, he gives you the job. You’re trading with that particular individual. Being good for the company has nothing to do with it. So, thinking about the differences in getting a job then and working now, what approach will you take to the people you might work with?”

“Let’s see,” Niall said.” I think they want me to help them make money.” Enid nodded but pursed her lips at the “make money.” “So I need to show that I know what will produce benefits.”

“Net benefits.”

“Net benefits.” Niall paused again and thought. “They need to be confident that I’ll do the right thing, even if they told me to do something else.”

Enid smiled slowly. “I think you’re beginning to understand. Keep going.”

“I think they want me to be able to think for myself. They want me to understand what I’m doing and how it fits in with what they’re doing. They want someone who is very good at cooperating.”

“Yes. In a job you obey. In working with others you cooperate. The better you do your part, the better they can do their parts. Next, what do you call a person who is not taking orders from those with whom he works?”

Niall thought for a moment. “Independent?”

“Good enough. If all of the people who are working together are independent but cooperating, who’s the boss?”

Niall looked for a trick in the question, but could find none. “There isn’t one.”

“What if they need to closely coordinate their actions like in a choir or on a team of medical people performing an operation?”

“There has to be a boss then, doesn’t there? They have to take orders so that they don’t mess up and do things in the wrong order or something.”

Enid sighed. “The independent people do need to coordinate their actions. They may well agree on someone to give orders and they may agree to follow those orders, but that does not make that one person the boss of any of the others. It’s just that the role of that person in the group is to do the coordinating. Like the quarterback on a football team calls the plays but is not the boss of the center.”

She continued, “In other words you obey a boss because you’ll be punished if you don’t. You obey in a work group because you have chosen to use that way of making your work more effective. Do you appreciate the difference?”

“Yes. I think I do. You cooperate to get something you desire rather than for fear of being hurt in some way.”

“Fine,” Enid said. “If you work with others, you and they will be independent individuals who have chosen to cooperate. Your work group may choose to have a name or it might not. But you should keep in mind that no matter how closely you’re cooperating with the others in some group you are still completely responsible for your own actions and the consequences of those actions. It is never an excuse to say ‘He told me to do it.’ You have no boss. You are free and therefore you are responsible even when at work.”

“I begin to see why you wanted to have this talk. I might have embarrassed you if you’d found work for me and I’d thought of it as a job.”

“If I thought you’d embarrass me, I wouldn’t help you.”

Niall smiled, saying,” I see that you’re an independent worker as well who happens to choose to cooperate with others when you think it best. I also see that you take responsibility for your actions and their consequences. I can furthermore see that I’ll get no help from you in finding work until you think I can do a good job… pardon me, can work well with others.

“You begin to understand, grasshopper.” Enid pressed her palms flat together in front of her and bowed slightly.

“What would happen to me if I just applied to work with some company around here and didn’t come to you first?”

Enid sighed, “Before I answer that, I want to correct you on one point. That is, there are no companies any more. They ended at the transition. You’ll still find work groups with the old company names. You’ll even find a lot of products with company logos and packaging. But the people who work together as IBM, for example, no more constitute a company than I do. Each person is an independent individual cooperating and taking responsibility for his actions.”

“Companies were sort of pretend people. Legally they were able to act in many ways like a person. But companies can’t be paid now since only real people can be paid. Companies can’t have money now since only people have money. Companies can’t pay their employees since only Payers can pay. Therefore, the legal fiction of the corporation just ceased to be relevant to anyone.”

Niall broke in, “What about unions? Who do they bargain with if the company doesn’t exist any more?”

Enid said, “Unions still exist but they’re more like guilds and standards committees now. There’s no one to bargain with, as the Teamsters found when they tried a strike shortly after the transition. They were trying to get the Payers to agree to pay them more for their work. But people stopped giving them food and gas for their trucks and so on and the strike was ended within a week. People recognized rather quickly that the Teamsters were striking against everybody else with their threats. The Teamsters found that lots of other people can drive trucks and that they’re more dependent on the rest of the people than the rest of the people are dependent on them. Now they run driving schools and give tips on where traffic congestion is bad and so on. Their top leaders also quit when their pay stopped due to the damage the strike had brought about.”

“So it’s just every man for himself?”

“And every woman for herself. People associate when they see some way to benefit and don’t when they don’t want to. Some people like to work all by themselves and they do. Some like to work with others and they do. Some people don’t like to work at all and don’t. Most of the slackers live pretty miserable lives it seems to me, but it’s still their choice. But with all this freedom comes responsibility for everything you do and fail to do. Your actions and the consequences of those actions will be to your credit or to your shame. I think this is the secret to the success we’ve had.”

“What do you mean by that ‘responsibility for all that you do and fail to do’ line? If I fail to help somebody ,do I get thrown in jail or something?”

Enid laughed, “Nothing of the kind. If you fail to help someone, you’re missing out on the money you might have earned. You’re shooting yourself in the foot. There’s no need for anyone else to punish you because the failure to act punishes itself. You have less money, which means there’s more for the rest of us. Also, if people know that you didn’t help when you could have, they’ll be unlikely to help you when you’re in need.”

“But how does that square with all that talk of independence? If you’re independent, you don’t need anybody.” Niall really did see a conflict here and Enid took him seriously.

“Nobody’s independent in the sense of not needing anyone else. From birth the human animal is dependent on others. Oh, sure, a man like yourself who is fit and healthy might be able to live in the woods or at the seashore for weeks, months, or even a few years.”

“Like Robinson Crusoe?” Niall asked.

“Yes. Very much like Robinson Crusoe. If you remember that story, the ship that wrecked on the deserted island was just full of supplies, which Robinson ferried ashore using a raft. Now did Robinson make all those things he brought ashore? No, he did not. Was he dependent upon them? I think he was. Did he bring anything else ashore with him besides the guns and other supplies? He sure did. He’d learned a lot of things from other people and he brought that knowledge to the island. So when he set up his camp, he built it of things other people had made using techniques that other people invented. Even all alone he was still dependent on those other people who were far away and in many cases, long since dead.”

“So how can people be called independent?”

“When used in the sense of not needing anyone or the products or knowledge of anyone else, people are not independent. But there are other senses of the word. For example, you yourself are using my knowledge to learn how to get by in this society. But are you dependent on me? No, you are not. There are any number of other people from whom you could get the same knowledge. Since there are many sources of this knowledge, you are independent of me and any other single source of this knowledge. While it’s true that everyone needs the society and economy of which they’re a part, in our society nobody is dependent on any single person or group of persons. If one source of the things you need or want is closed to you for whatever reason, you can always avail yourself of some other source or sources of those things. You remember when we were discussing jobs and how you had a boss who told you what to do and you did it for the money?”

Niall nodded.

“Did you feel dependent on that job? Did you feel that you had to have that job?”

“No. I knew I could always get another job.”

“Then you were a lucky one. Many people were terribly afraid of losing their jobs. They weren’t confident that they could get other work. They felt dependent on that particular job. Also, when some people lost their jobs they might be without jobs for years and never get as high-paying a job again their whole lives.”

“What’s different now? Don’t people still feel dependent on the work they do?”

“There are several things different now. First, the consequences of not working now are just that you have fewer new luxuries available. No one’s going to come and repossess the furniture. No one will be forced into the streets. Your family won’t have to go hungry.

“Second, you don’t have to have anyone else’s permission to earn money. It’s as if everyone were self-employed because in a very real sense they are. So there are thousands of things a person can do to earn money.”

“Yes, I’ve met some boys since I’ve been back in this country who did things for me to earn money. They were really helpful, too.”

“I’m not a bit surprised. Children learn early that when they do things for others there’ll be rewards for them. But to go on, people also feel more independent because everybody’s on the same side. That is, if I help you, that helps me. If you fail that hurts me. Therefore, your success is my success and my success is your success. Since we’re all in this together, we don’t need allies against everybody else.”

“I don’t get it. What does that have to do with independence?”

“OK. Think of yourself as a poor child in a poor neighborhood. The police ignore you, as does almost everybody else. There are gangs in your neighborhood. They demand money from you and take what little you have. How can you defend yourself from those gangs? You’re not strong. You have no weapons. Your parents are unavailable. What can you do?”

“Join a gang I suppose.”

Enid actually grinned, “You know your way around in a POM economy, don’t you? Yes, you’d join a gang. Now that you’ve joined, the gang will protect you from other gangs. But now you’re dependent on one particular gang for that protection. You can’t leave the gang and no other gang will protect you. So far, so good?”

“I follow you.”

“Now contrast that with a quiet, middle class suburban neighborhood with mothers watching their children play in their yards or on the playground in the park. There are no gangs of tough kids to even threaten to take your money and beat you up. You’re getting all your needs met. Do you have to join a gang? Do you have to make yourself dependent on that single source of security? No. You can be independent of the other kids.”

“But you’re still dependent on your parents.”

“Yes, you are, but in this analogy they represent the society as a whole. The other children represent the people with and among whom you work. In a POM society, it’s like that poor neighborhood where there were vicious gangs. There, everybody was against everyone else. There, the children formed gangs to exploit whom they could, and for defense against other strong groups. The gangs represent corporations and businesses. Unless you joined one, you wouldn’t have the protection of that group. You felt dependent on that corporation for health insurance, a continuing income with a chance at getting a raise, and even for your retirement income to supplement Social Security . In our society, even though there are groups who cooperate, those groups cannot gain from your loss. Anything that hurts you also reduces at least the potential income for others. Since everyone is on your side, you have no need to join a gang. Therefore you are, though ultimately dependent as everyone is, far more independent of any particular individual or group.”

“Yes, I think I see. Because I can expect everyone to want to help me, I’m not dependent on any individual helper. I could go to another employment office or another cafe or some other house. Anyone who helps me will be paid for helping me. That makes me independent.” Niall was getting comfortable with the ideas.

“Back in the POM days, a person was independent if they had plenty of money. They could trade with whomever they chose. Therefore, they weren’t dependent on any individual store or lawyer or whatever. If they were an independent businessman, they could sell to anyone and buy supplies from anyone. This made them independent. In Socialist countries, this independence became impossible because one had to buy from or sell to specific persons or organizations. Therefore, no one was free and independent. This meant that no one felt responsible. No one took responsibility for things that happened. It was always the fault of the system or they were just obeying orders. Without freedom, everything was doomed to failure.”

Enid started to get up. “But this isn’t getting you closer to working, is it? I’ll consider a few things and make some inquiries and see what I can come up with. I’ll see you tomorrow afternoon right after lunch. Oh, yes. Do you plan to buy a car?”

“I hadn’t given it a thought. Should I?”

“Depends on how close around here you want to work. If you work within a few miles you wouldn’t need a car. If you work on the 'net you won’t need a car. But if you choose work further out, then you would need a car unless it’s on a bus line.”

“Why don’t we get me a beginner’s job close by while I learn the ropes. Warn them that it might be only temporary, a few weeks perhaps.”

“Of course. All right, I’ll see you here tomorrow about 1:30.”

“Good afternoon, Ms. Lee.”

“Good afternoon, Niall.”

Niall dined that evening at home. He didn’t want to get on the bad side of the grocer by not eating all the food he’d taken this week.

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