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Friday, July 4, 2008

Eight Major Trends Shaping US History Since 1980

Introductory Comments

A few days ago, in a popular economic blog run by Brad DeLong --- a good economist historian, but an irresponsible blogger who lacerates everyone he disagrees with and shows an implacable hatred of George W. Bush and not more sympathy for Ronald Reagan --- the sassy, shooting-from-the-hip sourpuss listed six major trends that have marked American history since the start of the Reagan presidency in early 1981.  Some of the list is OK; some of it isn't; and the omissions are blatant.  To remedy these problems, Prof bug will add two neglected trends --- these omissions typical of DeLong's biases , ---and will briefly discuss two screwed-up trends that appear in his list.

DeLong's List

There are, to repeat, a half dozen he singles out. 

  1. The end of the Cold War
  2. Other winner-take-all factors that have, in combination with education, pushed American income polarization back to Gilded Age levels.
  3. The failure of American taxpayers to support their state and local governments in expanding funding for public education--and the impact of reduced public education effort in sharpening the distinction between rich and poor.
  4. The computer revolution in productivity growth.
  5. The rise of China (and soon, we hope, India) as industrial powers.
  6. The extraordinary social liberalization of America--if you had told any Republican in 1980 that 2008 would see (a) a Negro with an Arabic-Swahili name beating a veteran fighter pilot in the presidential polls and (b) gay marriage as the big cultural issue of the day, said Republican would have blown several gaskets. And if you had said that this would have been the result of an "Age of Reagan" said Republican would have melted down completely.
The Buggy Additions and Comments

Here's An Important Trend Ignored by DeLong: No 7, The Sharp Decline in Violent Crime Since the Early 1990s

  • Thanks to a combination of far better policing, a drop-off (until recently) of the number of young men (14-25), and far more incarcerations, our cities --- which were dangerous and infested with street crime of all sorts, making civilized life in many of these cities impossible --- the US has become one of the least violent countries in the advanced industrial world. In UN surveys of crime-victims in dozens of countries world-wide, carried out between the late 1980s and the early part of this decade, the US was ranked in roughly the bottom quarter of industrial countries in violent crime. Americans, it also turned out, were the most confident among industrial peoples in going out into public spaces and showed the most confidence in their police.

  • The former Swedish ambassador to the UN in New York was so impressed by the vast changes in public safety that occurred in New York city under Rudy Giuliani in the 1990s and on into this decade that he wrote an op-ed in the New York Times nominating Guiliani for the Nobel peace prize.

No. 3 Educational Spending in the US

  • This is a nonsensical claim by DeLong. As it happens, in the 17 years between 1990 and 2006, state and local government expenditures on education grew from $324.6 billion to $728 billion in current dollars --- in particular, from $499.9 billion to $728 billion in constant dollars. That's about a 46% real increase.

  • Quite apart from the nonsensical claim by DeLong about overall spending, it turns out that the average state in the US devotes only 61.3% of expenditures to classroom activities. The rest go to administrators, transportation, and a handful of support programs. Overall, though, there has been little improvement in the overall performance of American school children and teen-agers in international exams, mainly because the black-white and Hispanic-European American gap remains as big as it ever has (after a limited amount of initial improvement in the 1980s)

No. 4: The Computer Revolution and Increased Rates of Productivity Growth

  • DeLong's summary point is way too narrow an interpretation of a much more revolutionary set of radical breakthrough technologies that have transformed the very basic structures of our economy --- to wit, the cutting edge innovations across the board in information-and-communications, not least the Internet. We are still in the first generation of the World Wide Web, which has fueled the huge, non-stop growth of the Internet for both personal use and business commerce. Together, these new ICT innovations --- still working their impact on the US economy, not to mention the global economy as well --- have fostered a revolutionary shift from an industrial, material-based economy toward the use and manipulation of information . . . the basis of the emergent knowledge-based economy.

  • Among other spillovers, this shift toward a radically different economy explains in large part the growing income-inequality in the US since the late 1970s, though demographic shifts --- above all, the fact that 70% of all African-American children are born these days to a single mother, with 50% of Hispanic Americans now born illegitimately too.  (A black two-parent family's average income is virtually the same as the average two-parent white family, with an income about $75,000.)  A second demographic change has been the growth of retired people who decide to live more and more on their own, thanks to increases in social security as well as private pension schemes.  (A retired single father, for instance --- who lived on limited social security before the late 1970s and chose to live with his adult children --- would be counted as living in their household and his income would be added to theirs . . . households, not individuals, the basis of income distribution statistics.  For that matter, there are nearly two times as many members of families in the upper 20% quintile than in the bottom 20%, and about three times as many income-earners.)

  • A trio of other changes, this time economic, further explain the growth of income inequality.  One is that a knowledge-based economy puts a premium on workers with higher education.  Another, related to these radical ICT technologies, is growing trade with the rest of the world: in effect, as predicted by a well-known theorem of trade theory --- the Samuelson-Stolper theorem --- the US has tended to export more and more capital-intensive goods (material and human capital alike), which further rewards highly educated American workers and holds back or reduces the wages of low-skilled workers.  The final change: the influx since the late 1960s of large numbers of hard-working but poorly educated Hispanic immigrants, legal and illegal alike, which adds to the supply of low-wage workers in general.


  • So far, note quickly, the US has alone benefitted in marked ways from these ICT revolutions. Japan hasn't so far. The same is true of the EU. According to a recent study, none of the big European countries yet and to an extent only three or four small ones in North Europe have reaped the benefits of radical breakthroughs in ICT --- information and computer technologies, plus, come to that, cutting edge biotech innovations. http://www.voxeu.org/index.php?q=node/1058

"We find that the revival of European employment growth can help explain why European productivity slowed. But we do not explain why European productivity growth did not accelerate as occurred in the US. US productivity took off after 1995, growing at 0.7 percent faster per year, but in Europe a literal reading of the productivity growth data leads to doubt that the internet revolution ever occurred in Europe. Some of Europe's poor recent performance can be explained by reforms that will enhance growth in the long run, but not all of it. Our findings should lead EU policymakers to think about the two-edged effects of policy reforms on employment and productivity, but they should also worry about how to encourage innovation and the adoption of new technologies."

Here, Finally, Is the Most Important Trend Missed by DeLong, an Implacable Bush W Hater: No 8, Bush's Revolutionary Changes in US Security and Foreign Policies

(i.) 9/11's terrorist attacks:

The suicide Islamist attacks of 9/11 in the US --- followed by attacks in Britain and Spain as well as all over the Middle East and parts of Asia --- have brought about another revolution in foreign and security policies in the US . . . equal in fundamentals to the revolutions carried out in the Truman years (1947-1951 and in the Reagan years of 1981-1989.

*   Note here: though prof bug did not vote either time for George W Bush, he did support his administration's intervention in Iraq; and --- despite all the inexcusable blundering between the start of the occupation and the end of 2006 --- his polifcy there and in Afghanistan earlier will, I believe, single him out in future history as a significant and quite possibly successful leader in foreign policy matters. Remember here how, for a year or so after 9/11, most Americans were worried about a new terrorist attack on our soil . . . not least with weapons of mass destruction. Who is worried these days, except those in charge in our government (and in the governments of our allies) in dealing directly with terrorism?

  --  The answer: According to recent public opinion polls, fewer than 4.0% of Americans in the summer of 2008 fear a new terrorist attack.

*   But didn't the Bush administration bungle, almost from the outset, the occupation of Iraq after the brief war in late March and early April 2003?

  -- Yes, no two ways about it, and prof bug has just said so. The administration went into Iraq on blithe, best-case assumptions: the Iraqis would overwhelmingly welcome us, a fairly stable if interim Iraq government would soon take power, that government would be protected against terrorists by an effective if purged Iraqi military, and the occupation would pay for itself because of Iraq's oil riches. These heedless assumptions were inexcusable at the time, and they seem worse in hindsight.


(ii.) Still, a key distinction needs to be made here:

*   In particular, whatever any of us think about this blundering and the rigidities in the Bush administration that prevented a more effective military and political strategy that didn't emerge until late 2006, there is no effective argument that a toppling of Saddam's brutal Iraqi regime was more or less inevitable . . . not just after 911, but before it in the Clinton era, when momentum built up for overthrowing that regime as a danger to the US and its allies in the Middle East and elsewhere. Doubt that?  Well, here's President Clinton on the night of December 16, 1998, as he proclaimed publicly the start of a 4 day bombing campaign that launched over 600 cruise missiles intended to decapitate Saddam, his sons, his Baath party top-dog associates, and the Revolutionary Guard's leadership:

"Saddam Hussein must not be allowed to threaten his neighbors or the world with nuclear arms, poison gas, or biological weapons. . . . Other countries possess weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles. With Saddam, there is one big difference: he has used them. Not once, but repeatedly. . . . I have no doubt today that, left unchecked, Saddam Hussein will use these terrible weapons again."

*   A few weeks earlier, the Senate and the House of Representatives --- the former unanimously and the latter by a vote of 360 to 38 --- passed the Iraq Liberation Act that authorized Saddam's overthrow. Clinton quickly signed the Act; and on December 16th, as the bombs and missiles started falling on Iraq, Al Gore informed CNN's Larry King:

"You allow someone like Saddam Hussein to get nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles, chemical weapons, biological weapons. How many people is he going to kill with such weapons? . . . We are not going to allow him to succeed." [emphasis added]

*   On December 15, UNSCOM's director, Richard Butler, reported that Iraq was systematically obstructing and deceiving the internationally mandated inspection regime. Scott Ritter, a member of UNSCOM, appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee not long afterwards, criticizing the Clinton administration's failure to back its bombing with a credible threat of invasion. (Later, after 9/11's attacks, Ritter for some reason had changed his mind --- even though there had been no follow-up inspections since UNSCOM had withdrawn in December 2008 --- and became a harsh critic of Bush's threat to invade Iraq, followed by its implementation. Odd, no?)

*   These and other like-minded quotes (including from Nancy Pelosi, John Kerry, Howard Dean, and Joseph Biden: all prominent Democrats of course) are found in a remarkably intelligent, crisply argued article by Professor Arthur Herman in the June 2008 issue of Commentary. In a letter sent by an impressive list of U.S. Senators --- including such Democrats as Carl Levin, Tom Dashle, and John Kerry --- implored Clinton to "respond effectively", with air strikes if need be, to the "threat posed by Iraq's refusal to end its WMD programs." Dashle, remember, became the Senate Democratic Majority Leader early in the current decade. As for Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker of the House of Representatives the last year and a years, she warned on December 16, 1998, that Saddam's "development of WMD technology . . . is a threat to countries in the region."


(iii.) Moving to the debate on Iraq in the fall of 2002, a year after the 9/11 terrorist massacres.

*   By then, the containment program of Iraq that had evolved after the Persian Gulf War of the spring of 1991 had broken down. Remember here: international inspections of Iraq's WMD had stopped. The only leverage that was left after 1998 was the Oil-for-Food program, which the UN Security Council had worked out with Saddam in 1996, and it had quickly become, as Herman notes, " a spigot of cash for Saddam and his family and cronies" as well, it was assumed virtually everywhere, for his WMD developments. Nor was that all. In September 2002, as Bush was turning to the UN for resolute action against Saddam's regime, the CIA made public a report, Iraqi Support for Terrorism, averring that "Iraq continues to be a safe haven, transit point, or operational node for groups and individuals who direct violence against the United States."

As Herman notes on this latter score, regarding Saddam's regime and terrorism:

"We now know, thanks to captured Iraqi documents, that American intelligence seriously underestimated the extent of Saddam's ties with terrorist groups of all sorts. Throughout the 1990's, it emerged, the Iraqi intelligence service had worked with Hamas, the Palestine Liberation Front, and Yasir Arafat's private army (Force 17), and had given training to members of Islamic Jihad, the terrorist group that assassinated Egyptian president Anwar Sadat. Saddam also collaborated with jihadists fighting the American presence in Somalia, including some who were members of al Qaeda. It may be that al Qaeda had no formal presence in Iraq itself, but the captured documents show that it did not need such a presence. Saddam was willing to work with any terrorists who targeted the United States and its allies, and he reached out to al-Qaeda-affiliated groups (and vice-versa) whenever the occasion warranted."

  --  Note here that no Bush administration official, let alone the president himself, ever claimed that Saddam had been involved in the 9/11 Al Qaeda attacks on US soil. 


(iv.) What about Weapons of Mass Destruction?

*   Remember the British intelligence report that Saddam had sought to obtain high-grade uranium from Niger for his nuclear program?  President Bush said in his annual State of the Union Address to the nation in January 2003 that the Iraqi effort to acquire the uranium had been "reported" by British intelligence.  That was accurate.  Was the report sound?  Well, the special panel set up by the House of Commons to investigate British intelligence claims and the decision to go to war  --- the panel was headed by Lord Butler --- reaffirmed in its July 2004 report that British intelligence had in fact "credible" information from "several sources" that a 1999 visit by Iraqi officials to Niger had occurred, and specifically for the purpose of buying uranium.

  --  About the same time as the Butler report was made public in Britain, the US Senate Foreign Intelligence Committee reported that the CIA had received information that Saddam's government had sought to buy 500 tons of uranium a year, enough to equip 50 nuclear warheads. And contrary to what the media in the US tended to say about special envoy Joseph Wilson's trip to Niger to investigate the alleged Iraqi effort in the winter and spring of 2003, he had informed the Intelligence Committee that Saddam had in fact wanted to buy the uranium, but that the deal never materialized. Wilson then discounted the deal altogether in his public statements. (For a good summary of all this, click here.)

  --  Earlier, in the summer of 2003, the CIA had begun to change its collective mind. It found that the Italian sources of the Saddam effort to buy Niger uranium were unreliable, and thus disagreed with British intelligence here. Wait though.  The Senate Intelligence Committee's report of July 2004 said that Wilson's information had confirmed what CIA intelligence had itself inferred on its own. Similarly, Lord Butler's report to the House of Commons found that British intelligence had sound reasons for its assertion about Saddam's regime and Niger: yes, the Italian documents turned out to be fraudulent, Butler reported, but --- so he emphasized --- they were by no means the only source for British intelligence's conclusion that Saddam had deliberately sought to acquire Niger uranium for his weapons program.

*As for the new UN inspection team, headed by Hans Blix and sent to Iraq in December 2002 after Saddam's government had filed a 12,000 page report on the alleged destruction of all its WMD programs as required by UN Security Council's resolution 1441 --- the 16th resolution it had issued on Iraq over the previous 11.5 years --- Blix reported twice to the Security Council . . . once on January 28th, 2008, and again on February 14th. 

The first time he disclosed that Iraq's officials were cooperating with his team, but had not shown a "genuine acceptance" of the need to unilaterally disarm.  He also disclosed in that same January 28th report that the inspectors had found empty chemical warheads and that thousands of warheads had not been accounted for in the Iraqi documents.  Furthermore, the inspectors had discovered in the house of an Iraqi citizen 3000 pages of WMD programs; for Blix, they suggested an effort to 'hide' the documents from his team.

In his February 14th report, Blix observed that Iraqi official had been more positively cooperating with his inspection team since his earlier report. The team, he said, had a different interpretation of the satellite images of Iraqi chemical and biological stations that Secretary of State Colin Powell had shown on February 5th to the Security Council.  He did, however, express doubts that Iraq had destroyed its stockpiles of anthrax and VX nerve gas, especially since Saddam's regime had produced no records of their destruction.  

Contrary to what much of the media concluded from Blix's last report, he expressly said in an interview with Time magazine shortly afterwards about the lack of such records that "I don't see that they (Iraqi officials) have acquired any credibility. There has to be solid evidence of everything, and if there is not evidence, or you can't find it, I simply say, 'Sorry, I don't find any evidence,' and I cannot guarantee or recommend any[thing with] confidence." Source

(v.) The roles of the US Congress and the UN Security Council as well as 48 other countries in the run-up debate on war.

*   As for the decision to topple Saddam Hussein's regime --- the war beginning on March 18th, 2003, remember --- note that in the fall of 2002 more than half the Senate's Democrats ( including John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, and Joseph Biden) voted with the Republicans to empower the President "to defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq".  The Congressional act further authorized President Bush to implement all the relevant resolutions passed by the UN Security Council. In the House of Representatives, more than a third of Democrats also supported this Congressional act. In this connection, ponder the following statements:

Democratic Senator Charles Schumer: "Hussein's vigorous pursuit of biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons, and his present and potential future support for terrorist acts and organizations . . . make him a terrible danger to the people of the United States.". Here is Senator Hillary Clinton: "My position is very clear. The time has come for decisive action to eliminate the threat posed by Saddam Hussein's WMD's." And Senator John Edwards: Every day [Saddam] gets closer to his long-term goal of nuclear capability." And Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean: "There's no question that Saddam Hussein is a threat to the U.S. and our allies."

In the House debate, Nancy Pelosi --- now the Democratic Speaker of the house --- was no less worried about Saddam's WMD programs than she had been back in 1998: "Yes," she said, "[Saddam] has chemical weapons. He has biological weapons. He is trying to get nuclear weapons."

*   Was the military intervention of March 18th in Iraq justified by international law?

   --  Two permanent members of the UN Security Council, the US and the UK, plus Spain (a temporary member) --- all three comitting millitary forces to the war--- insisted that they had such authority: on their view, which was supported by three or four other temporary member-countries, that authority had been set out in the Security Council's Resolution 1441 passed unanimously four months earlier. Saddam's regime, the US and British representatives insisted --- along with 47 other governments around the world --- had not lived up to the resolution's stipulations and hence had been found in "material breach" of them. When, on March 18th, 2003, the war began, British and US troops were joined by military forces from five other democratic countries: Australia, Poland, Spain, Italy, and Denmark. A 6th democratic country, the Czech Republic, sent medical teams to the front lines as well. In addition, 41 other governments around the world backed the US-UK interpretation of international law.   

  --  True, other governments on the Security Council had disagreed. So did the UN General Secretary, Kofi Annan.  That was their right, and that is the nature of international law: it lacks a compulsory authoritative court system for settling disputes between states. But to repeat: the British and American governments, two permanent members of the Security Council, along with two ad hoc members (Spain and Bulgaria) --- plus six other industrial democracies --- interpreted the legality differently, and they were joined by 39 other governments around the world in support of that interpretation.

  --  How, in view of all this, critics of the intervention here and elsewhere continue to call the US-led coalition a unilateral move.  Either these critics need to look up the word unilateral in a dictionary, or they do know the meaning of the word but find its propaganda usage to their liking.

Observe carefully: the legal case in support of the intervention turned out later to be sound.  How so?

 Specifically, after Saddam's regime was toppled, the Iraqi Survey Group headed by David Kay reported months later it had not found WMD in Iraq . . .which was one of the conclusions set out in the ISG report of October 2003, the only one the media tended to concentrate on.  In fact, as Kay also reported --- which the media in the US and elsewhere tended to downplay or ignore --- there were "dozens of WMD-related program activities and significant amounts of equipment" that Saddam had hidden from the UN's new inspection team Blix's inspectors in 2002.

In short, Kay's report showed exactly what both American, British, Spanish, and Bulgarian members of the Security Council --- along with dozens of other governments world-wide (including 6 democratic countries that joined with the US and British forces in participating in the intervention) --- had insisted on before March 18th, 2003 Saddam's government, as it turned out, in clear "material breach" as stipulated by Resolution 1441 that the UN Security Council had passed unanimously 4 months earlier.

And there was more in the Kay report. Though it disclosed that the ISG inspectors had discovered no WMD, Kay himself did state that "in my view, Iraq indeed had WMD's" and assumed that smaller stocks very likely existed on Iraqi territory at the time of his report. Nor was that all. Kay later informed the Daily Telegraph of London that his team of inspectors had discovered evidence that some WMDs had been moved to Syria in the run-up to the war.

When he reported to the Senate, Kay refined his views. Without qualification, he said, "the world is far safer with the disappearance and removal of Saddam Hussein." From what his ISG inspectors had found, moreover, the top layers of the Iraqi regime had fallen into two factions: those who had been ready to sell to the highest bidder WMD or information on building them, and those (Saddam included) who had been ready to buy the know-how of others at similarly high prices.

As Herman notes here, Saddam --- interrogated by the FBI after his capture in late 2003 --- "admitted that he intended to rebuild his WMD programs once he rid himself of the international sanctions" that had been in effect since the spring of 1991.

(vi.) One or two other points worth emphasizing here about the decision to go to war and toppled Saddam's regime. 

*   Namely? Informed observers can justifiably continue to argue whether the war and the occupation have been worth the costs in American, British, and Iraqi lives, not to mention the huge financial burdens. The same applies to the costs in American prestige. 

  --  Against all these costs has to be set these facts: the containment system of Saddam's regime set up by the UN after the Persian Gulf War of 1991 had broken down by the late 1990s . . . even before 9/11's terrorist attacks on US soil. The Clinton administration had no doubts that Saddam had dangerous ongoing WMD programs; got the US Congress, dominated by Democrats, to commit the US government to toppling Saddam's regime; had attacked Iraq with four days of cruise missile and other bombings back in December 1998; had the active support in doing so of prominent Democratic leaders like John Kerry and Nancy Pelosi and Tom Dashle (the Senate Majority leader at the start of the current decade). After 9/11 Saddam's regime and the evidence --- essentially supported by all major intelligence agencies world-wide --- that it was pursuing WMD programs --- made the Iraqi government a more urgent problem. And David Kay's ISG report supported the US-UK-Spanish-Bulgarian position in the Security Council before the war that Saddam's regime in fact had such programs and likely had certain WMD stockpiles that the Kay said may have been not just destroyed but sent possibly to Syria, though he had no hard evidence to that effect.

  --  This debate on the Iraqi war will obviously continue, and for years to come.  It will likely take a good decade or two before a full rounded perspective on the wisdom of the Bush policy of intervention there.  For what it's worth, prof bug suspects that the historical view of the intervention will prove favorable to the current administration.   


(vii.) Here are a few other merits of the Bush administrations' foreign and security policies, at any rate as they exist in mid-2008. 

1. Specifically, our relations with NATO governments are far better than they have been since at least the start of 2001, and on the governmental level, as good as they had been in the Clinton era.

2. Then, too, our relations with Japan, China, India, and both South and North Korea are never been better, period.

3. And our intelligence agencies have been working effectively with those of our NATO allies, several countries in Asia, and virtually all the Arab states in the Middle East. Something else to ponder as well.

4. The expansion of NATO up to the Russian borders --- pushed first by Clinton over the protests of most of our EU allies, along with Bush's support for further recent expansions --- have for the first time in history created a stable Europe from Russia's borders to the Atlantic ocean. And, fortunately, that stability has been further cemented by the expansion of the EU eastward as well. More generally, in Muslim countries, the horrific Al-Qaeda and similar suicide bombings in Iraq and several places in Pakistan, Indonesia, and the Middle East has generally turned the populations strongly against such terrorism . . . a big asset in the war on terror, now almost in its 8th year.


(viii.) The biggest disappointments of the Bush period in foreign policy? 

*   Two stand out.  Above all, there's failure so far to get a much tougher stand on Iraq from our European NATO allies, though, possibly, the recent declaration last week by the EU that it would upgrade its economic sanctions is at least a small improvement.  A related failure: an unnecessary yielding of the moral high ground, mainly because of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo prisons. 

*   On the growing Iranian nuclear danger, see this updated article by a nuclear physicist, who was the former chief scientist for the US Sentate Foreign Relations Committee.  Note that the International Atomic Energy Agency has recently underscored several worrying trends in its talks with Teheran about its nuclear programs, but without any responses.   Among those worries, set out in question form:


  • Why is Iran using high explosives to implode a hemispherical shell of heavy metal? The only known use for such tests is to perfect a lightweight nuclear bomb.

  • Why is Iran developing the kinds of detonators needed in an atomic weapon?

  • Why is Iran designing, or redesigning, a ballistic missile warhead so that it can contain a nuclear weapon?

  --  Would stronger economic sanctions against Iran's radical Islamist government work?  Probably not.  For one thing, Russia remains a major economic partner of Iran.  For another thing, the track record of economic sanctions applied to a determined dictatorial regime is, historically speaking, dismal.  Even so, the advantage of sanctions still stands out for another reason.  Namely: should Israel or the US bomb Iran's major uranium centrifugal enrichment-sites --- and, contrary to what the media tend to portray, only a handful or so need to be destroyed to undermine its nuclear-weapons program --- then the use of force will have seemed more legitimate, a last resort to enforce international law against a dangerous, duplicitous regime that is in clear violation of its obligations under the nuclear proliferation treaty.