CNN Held a Debate about Health Care—Sure, Why Not?

I mean, with a promo like this, who *wouldn’t* want to tune in? (Source: CNN)

After a Democratic Party primary season which saw nine debates and 13 candidate forums held, and a Republican Party campaign season which saw 12 debates and nine forums held, many Americans may be justifiably and understandably “debated out.” Half-truths and outright lies. Pandering to prospective voters along demographic lines. Constant interruptions. The rambling attempts to answer questions from the person of Dr. Ben Carson. For these reasons and more, it is no wonder people may not only become disengaged from political discourse in the weeks and months following any presidential election and into the inauguration, but may actively distance themselves from anything of a political nature. Especially if you find yourself on the liberal end of the political spectrum, the executive actions taken by President Trump and the partisan rancor which has marked the confirmation process for a number of his Cabinet nominees has made tuning in to the news these days almost somewhat of an act of masochism. Either that or you want to take out your frustrations on the nearest object. In the latter case, make sure the consistency of said object is closer to that of a pillow than, say, a brick wall.

While the nature of politics today and President Trump’s victory have helped alienate scores of Americans, others have taken recent events as a call to action and a reason to stay informed and involved. Though the workings of Congress may remain arcane to many of us, a notion buttressed by the crushing boredom of House and Senate proceedings, through News Feeds and trending topics on social media, as well as dedicated accounts whereby average citizens can interact with their elected representatives, political figures have never been more accessible than they are today. Why, I interact every day with President Trump via Twitter! OK, so maybe it’s a bit one-sided, and it consists of me Tweeting to his preferred account each time that he lost the popular vote, according to the most recent count, by 2,868,519 votes—but hey, I get to speak to him directly! (He seems very concerned with the results of the popular vote, so I figured he should be apprised of the status of the count, you know, just in case anything were to change.) It’s an exciting time in American history to be so close to those with our best interests in mind!

It is with this dichotomy that I offer the news, in the event you were unaware, that CNN aired a televised debate on the subject of health care recently, with periodic updates on social media featuring snippets of the proceedings. Wait—you’re saying—this is February 2017. We just had an election, and the 2018 mid-terms aren’t until November of next year. Why are we having a debate at this very early point in the campaign? Well, for starters, both of the participants are, in fact, running for re-election in 2018, and as a matter of fact, made it pretty darn far in the presidential race before conceding to the eventual party nominees. Besides this possible means to an end, though, the topic of conversation is an important one for Americans across income level, age level and other identifying characteristics. The subject of health care in the United States is a pressing one for individuals and businesses alike, and yet more so in the wake of the GOP’s announced plans to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. Based on what our leaders and policymakers decide in the near future, large swaths of the population stand to be impacted one way or another, and noting the costs involved, generations to come may likewise be affected by the actions of the present. So, yeah, while we’re a way’s away from November 2018, it makes sense to have a debate now when so much is at stake.

Have I sufficiently set the scene? Even if I haven’t, let us press onward, for we have much to discuss, grasshopper.



For a weeknight debate in the campaign off-season, CNN and the powers-that-be for each “side” of the affair could have trotted out your run-of-the-mill, rank-and-file members of Congress. As it turned out, though, this debate brought the heat in the form of two heavyweight contenders in the political scene. Your, ahem, “fighters” in this bout:

In the red corner, the U.S. Senator everyone loves to hate, the Tea Partier from Texas, the Canadian-born, half-Cuban aficionado of the government shutdown, ladies and gentlemen—give it up for Rafael “The Zodiac Killer” Cruz!

Photo Source: Nati Harnik/AP

Annnnnd in the blue corner, he’s an independent senator but he caucuses with the Democrats, he lives in Vermont but he’s Brooklyn through and through, he’s a fan of democratic socialism and he’s not afraid to show it—”let me be clear” who I am talking about: the one, the only, Bernard “It’s Not about Me, It’s About Our Revolution” Sanders!

Photo Source: John Locher/AP


Round One: The Opening Statements

Bernie Sanders was first to go in the opening segment, and per the boxing metaphor, he came out swinging. According to Sanders, the Republicans’ intended repeal of the Affordable Care Act would mean 20 million Americans finally able to have health insurance would lose it, the 10 million seniors struggling to pay for prescription drugs would see their costs go up by an average of $2,000, and people with serious diseases/illnesses could be refused insurance for having pre-existing conditions. In making these arguments, Bernie acknowledged the ACA isn’t perfect, but indicated a majority of Americans want better than a repeal without an improved replacement. Then, he dusted off his old line from the campaign trail: that the United States is the only major country on Earth not to offer health care as a fundamental right. It doesn’t make it any less true, of course, but ahem, we’ve heard this before.

Ted Cruz, when he was on for his two minutes, talked about how his colleague in the Senate and the Democrats want government to control health care, and therefore want to wrest control away from you and your family. Cruz then proceeded to engage in the GOP’s new favorite tradition—dragging the legacy of Barack Obama—specifically by alleging Obama made promises about Americans being able to keep their own plans and that families’ premiums wouldn’t rise, and didn’t keep them, and capped these arguments off by saying the election was a referendum on ObamaCare. Actually,  it seemed like the election was a referendum on establishment politics in general and/or Barack Obama and “Crooked” Hillary Clinton, but sure, go nuts with that story, Ted.

Round Two: So When Exactly Do We Repeal, Again?

To start off the actual debate portion of the debate, Jake “Please Don’t Put Me on with Kellyanne Conway Again” Tapper, co-moderator of CNN’s prime-time event alongside Dana “Admit It, You’re Glad I’m Not Don Lemon, Aren’t You?” Bash, engaged Ted Cruz about a timeline for a repeal of ObamaCare. After all, Paul Ryan had said a full repeal would get done by the end of 2017, but President Trump recently suggested a repeal and replacement might not come to pass until 2018. So, wouldn’t anything less than a substantive change by the end of this year be tantamount to a broken promise? Cruz was quick to reject this assertion, though, returning to his line about recent elections between a referendum on ObamaCare, saying “the people” wanted lower deductibles and premiums and more choices, not less, when it comes to their health care providers. Don’t we all, Ted. Don’t we all. Cruz closed his thoughts on this particular question by saying we need “common-sense” reform on health care and health insurance in America (“common-sense Republican reform”—bit of an oxymoron, no?), and attacked Democrats for resisting all changes to the Affordable Care Act. It’s not necessarily true, mind you, but it plays well in sound bites and video clips.

Given the opportunity to respond, Bernie Sanders replied by saying the Republicans don’t have a credible substitute for the ACA, and accordingly, are in a state of “panic.” He was all, like, oh, you want a choice under the GOP’s plan? How about if you have cancer, then you either have affordable health care, or if you are refused coverage because you have a “pre-existing condition,” you—wait for it—die? What kind of a choice is that? OK, so he didn’t say it exactly like that per se, but he may as well have. As Sanders views things, it is the nature of private insurance that drives these no-win situations for the consumer, and in a rebuttal to the notion ObamaCare has driven up premiums, remarked that it was under the Bush administration that rates really began to soar. So chew on that for a while, you whipper-snapper!

In a rebuttal to the rebuttal, Ted Cruz pointed out that insurance companies’ profits increased during Obama’s tenure, which doesn’t really prove anything, but the correlation is there. Bernie made a counter-offer that we should just bypass the insurance companies altogether and institute a Medicare-for-all system. Cruz then pivoted to a verbal assault on Big Pharma and the cost of prescription drugs, which Sanders admittedly got baited into joining because he loves him some Big Pharma bashing. Sheesh—one question in, and this thing was already threatening to go off the rails.

Round Three: Ponder This

Round Three marked the introduction of audience member questions into the fray. The first of these came from a woman named Neosho Ponder, someone diagnosed with breast cancer and currently undergoing treatment because of ObamaCare. She wanted to know of Ted Cruz: if the Affordable Care Act is repealed, what guarantee will I have that I’ll be able to afford health insurance given my “pre-existing condition” of cancer? To which Cruz essentially was all, like, um, well, we can pray for you? Bernie Sanders first asked for Jake Tapper to “cut him a switch.” Then he proceeded to lambaste his political rival for wanting to repeal every word of the ACA without maintaining the ability to protect those with pre-existing conditions from the machinations of the insurance industry. Cruz responded by saying what about the 6 million people who lost their coverage as a result of ObamaCare? (By the way, not really close to being accurate.) Dana Bash interceded to ask him when, exactly, he planned on answering Ponder’s question. And Ted Cruz was all, like, I already did a bunch of times. And Bash was all, like, seriously, though, what about those pre-existing conditions? And Cruz then offered to do everyone in attendance a magic trick to lighten the mood. No—you’re right—he didn’t, but it would’ve been just about as effective. Because he and the Republicans can’t promise Americans like Neosho Ponder will be able to find coverage, and in the spirit of illusions, would only excel at making affordable health insurance disappear.

Round Four: The, Er, Abnormal Pap Smear Round

No one involved in the actual debate had an abnormal pap smear, whether we’re talking about the participants or the moderators. That is, that we know of. I mean, Ted Cruz could secretly be a hermaphrodite or something. Not that I’m alleging he is one, by the way. Just saying you never know. No, that revelation came from audience member Melissa Borkowski, a nurse practitioner from Florida with a husband, four kids, and, oh, just a tiny little insignificant $13,000 deductible. Bernie Sanders was asked, um, what gives, old man? Sen. Sanders replied by saying, well, Pam, we shouldn’t be paying that much, and if this were France, Germany, Scandinavia or the U.K., you wouldn’t. She-He Cruz, meanwhile, contended we pay more because we get better and more frequent care. What happens when the government controls health care is that it rations that care. So there, Bernie. Then he stuck his tongue out and made antlers with his hands to his head.

Piggybacking off Borkowski’s question and her, well, candid medical information, Jake Tapper directed a follow-up at Bernie, asking him about a state like Florida that now has less insurance choices to offer through ObamaCare and through the public exchange. How do we manage affordability for the consumer while still offering a fair number of choices? First, responding to Melissa’s question and Ted Cruz’s comments, because he’ll answer your question when he’s good and ready, Mr. Tapper!, Bernie Sanders noted that when people can’t afford health insurance and proper health care, that is effectively a form of rationing as well. The solution, as Sanders sees it, is to, as an extension of a Medicare-for-all single-payer program, provide a public option in all 50 states and offer the kind of competition needed against the private sector. Ted Cruz, in his reply, brought a visual aid in the form of a map of this insurance coverage—or lack thereof—and criticized the public option as the government controlling your health care, also known as—gasp!—socialism. Besides, as much as Sen. Sanders might extol the public option, what about all those Canadians and Scandinavians who come to the United States for superior health care?

Quick to jump back in, Bernie refuted the notion that the government option was the government telling people what to do. After all, it’s an option, not a mandate. Regardless, you don’t see leaders of these countries that offer the public option, even the conservative ones, choosing to get rid of this avenue for insurance. Mr. Zodiac Killer, in response, threw out some horror stories about rationing and waiting periods for patients as a justification for why there shouldn’t be a public option or even a Medicare-for-all program. Bernie, however, wasn’t having any of it, and threw out not his own horror stories, but rather an estimate that tens of thousands of Americans die each year because they don’t seek medical treatment, or as Big Pharma would refer to it within the context of possible side effects for prescription drugs, there are tens of thousands of “fatal events.” Ooh—Bernie Sanders with the haymaker, right before the commercial break!

Round Five: Help Me, LaRonda!

Actually, it was LaRonda who needs the help, although, unfortunately for her, she probably was never going to a satisfactory answer from either debater. The question, first directed at Sen. Sanders, was posed by LaRonda Hunter, an owner of five Fantastic Sams hair salons who would like to expand and hire more employees, but this would put her over the 50-employee threshold, and under ObamaCare, she would need to start providing health insurance to her employees. So, how could she meet this regulatory requirement and grow her business without raising prices or lowering wages? (Side note: I have never heard of Fantastic Sams, but evidently, they have locations all over the damn place. They also evidently don’t like using apostrophes. I mean, it should be “Fantastic Sam’s,” right? Unless the founder has the last name Sams? Either way, their distinction of being “fantastic” seems suspect.) And Bernie was all, like, well, Ronda. And Ms. Hunter replied, it’s LaRonda. And Sanders was all, like, dammit, you people have to stop changing your names on me! As to your question, though, um, you don’t? That is, if you have that many employees, they should be getting health insurance. Sen. Ted Cruz, given the floor, took the opportunity to portray ObamaCare as the nemesis of small business, and identified two piteous classes of people created by the Affordable Care Act. The first is the 29ers, those forced to work part-time jobs because ObamaCare kicks in at 30 hours a week. The other is the 49ers, who suffer the plight of being a terrible football franchise. Kidding—sort of! The 49ers, in Cruz’s context, are people like LaRonda Hunter that stop short of hiring 50 employees or else be subject to needing to meet the insurance requirement under the ACA. So, thanks, Democrats, thanks, Barack Obama—this is the Hell you’ve wrought in the United States of America.

Bernie Sanders, of course, was not about to take this line of thinking from Sen. Cruz lying down. On the contrary, he made a few key points. First, he acknowledged that premiums are way too high, but again, they’ve been on the incline since the days of Dubya. Second, Sanders explained that there are actually fewer part-time workers now than there were before the passage of the ACA. Third, and reiterating his point from earlier, from the campaign trail, and from much of his adult life, the U.S. should enact a Medicare-for-all program—that is, unless Ted Cruz and the Republicans don’t kill it off first. Ooh—a body blow from the people’s champ! Cruz hadn’t lost his fighting spirit either, however. He asked his competitor, you know, Bernie, President Obama said premiums would go down. Wasn’t he a liar-liar-pants-on-fire? Ouch—a right hook from the challenger of his own!

The older fighter, though, proved he can still take a punch. Bernie conceded it turned out that Obama’s promise turned out not to be true, though he probably thought it was true at the time. (Second side note: if we’re calling Barack Obama a liar on this front, what does that make Donald Trump, who has already unrepentantly broken scores of campaign promises in less than a month on the job? Oh, that’s right—that would make Trump a “fraud.”) At any rate, the only way a scenario like LaRonda Hunter’s would work, he reasoned, is if we cut through the administration and bureaucracy and guarantee health care for all. Cruz, perhaps surprisingly, agreed. There’s too much paperwork. It’s all the government’s fault. Sanders replied, wait a second, Mr. Looks Like the Lead Singer of Stryper—government is part of the reason, but so are insurance companies. Sen. Cruz, once more, agreed, saying they should agree on some sort of alternative. Sen. Sanders, putting his hand to his face and shaking his head back and forth, was all, like, I’ve already said it, like, five times—Medicare-for-all, single-payer. What, do you not believe health care is a right? And Ted Cruz was all, like, I like rights. Religious freedom, that’s a good one. The Second Amendment—I enjoy that one as well. Bernie Sanders was, at this point, growing tired of his rival’s rope-a-dope. The ensuing dialog went a little something like this, and I’m paraphrasing, obviously:

BERNIE: Do you believe health care is a right?

TED CRUZ: I believe access to health care is a right.


Damn, Bernie! Don’t hurt him! Ted Cruz, in this round, may just have been saved by the bell, er, commercial break.

Round Six: The “Congratulations on Your MS” Round

The next audience question from the debate came from the person of Carol Hardaway, who suffers from multiple sclerosis. Because her state did not expand Medicaid coverage under the ACA (and what state is that? Hint: it rhymes with “Shmexas”!), she was forced to move to one that did in Maryland. So, if the Affordable Care Act is to be repealed, can she still have her coverage or a replacement that is at least on par with it? Ted Cruz, in his response, first said this—and I wish I was making this up:

Well, Carol, thank you for sharing your story. And congratulations on dealing with MS. It’s a terrible disease. And congratulations on your struggles dealing with it.

As I often do with these debates, I follow people’s comments on Twitter as they air live, and after this line from Cruz, the immediate response from most of the users was, “Wait—did this guy just f**king congratulate her on having MS?” Yes, he f**king did. This is the problem Ted Cruz faces when he has to express an actual human emotion: it often comes across as extremely awkward. When he was done applauding Ms. Hardaway for having a debilitating illness, Sen. Cruz then basically said, gee, I’m glad Medicaid is working for you, but it’s a terrible program and should be replaced with private insurance. Bernie Sanders, in rebuttal, once more conceded Medicaid, like the ACA, is not perfect, but for those governors who have refused federal funds on principle, he hopes they can sleep at night knowing some of their constituents probably died as a result of refusing the Medicaid expansion. Cruz fired back by saying Medicaid is rationed care. Sanders replied by saying that slashing funding for Medicaid is only making things worse, and what’s more, this fabled access to quality health care that the Republicans and others tout is lacking in urban and rural areas, begging the expansion of programs like the National Health Service Corps to help meet the needs of the primary care crisis.

Throughout all of this, meanwhile, Carol Hardaway’s question remained unanswered, such that Jake Tapper actually cut in to let her speak again when he noticed her shaking her head because Ted Cruz did not adequately address her concerns. Given the chance to respond, Sen. Cruz professed that there is “widespread agreement” on replacement plans, and cited three hallmarks of something that would theoretically fill the void of ObamaCare if it were repealed: 1) allowing Americans to purchase plans across state lines, 2) expanding health savings accounts (HSAs), and 3) making health insurance portable so it travels with you from job to job. He also cited his home state’s passage of tort reform laws to address lawsuit abuse and medical malpractice suits. Some notes on these “widely agreeable” solutions:

  • Across-state plans sound good in theory, but the primary obstacle, as this New York Times piece written by Margot Sanger-Katz details, is not regulatory, but financial and of insurer network difficulties. Insurers don’t like them, by and large, and besides, the states like to regulate these matters themselves. Not to mention it takes time to establish relationships between insurance companies and health care providers. In other words, it’s not that simple, Ted.
  • HSAs offer possible advantages in that plans with lower premiums but higher deductibles may cause people to be more cognizant of what they’re spending. However, a potential drawback is that consumers may not be willing to seek out more expensive procedures—even when they really need them. It’s a disturbing thought, but a reality of these types of accounts.
  • Portable health insurance is, in theory, a great idea. In practice, though, logistical difficulties often loom herein related to an inability to find comparable plans when changing insurers, or otherwise failure by the insured to adequately suss out whether a plan is truly beneficial to them. At any rate, the big picture issue would seem to be keeping insurance costs low regardless of insurer, and this seems to be at odds with how many health insurance giants operate. As quick as Sen. Cruz and others are to point to “big government,” the insurance industry bears as much, if not more, responsibility.
  • Ted Cruz touts his state’s commitment to tort reform as a success, but studies suggest that health care costs did not decrease as a result of Prop 12, which passed in Texas in 2003 and was advocated for by Gov. Rick Perry and other GOP members within the state. Often, malpractice suits and the costs of litigation are blamed for the rising cost of medical care, but it is the economics of the health care industry and errors which primarily drive the upward trend. Moreover, capping the possible damages for victims of malpractice risks denying them the monies they need, or otherwise shifting the burden to programs like Medicare and Medicaid. You know, the same programs Republicans are trying to gut. But, go ahead, Senator Cruz—pat yourself on the back.

The “round” concluded with Sanders pointing out that Texas has the highest rate of uninsured residents by far—and in the process, casually dropping the notion his state, Vermont, has the second-lowest rate of insured in the nation—and Cruz defending the Lone Star State as a job producer and drastically more diverse than Vermont. Then Sanders said Cruz was ugly. Then Cruz said Sanders’ accent is stupid. If Jake Tapper didn’t intercede, the two senators might literally have gotten into a slap fight—forget my boxing analogy. Oh, it was so on now!

Round Seven: Womanhood—The Pre-existing Condition

On the debate pressed. Next to pose a query was Maria Shahid Rowe, a nursing student at the Medical University of North Carolina, pregnant with her second child, who wanted to know of Ted Cruz what any plans to repeal the Affordable Care Act would mean for pregnant women, who were at risk of being dropped before ObamaCare passed due to being considered to have a pre-existing condition, or for women in general for that matter, in that they could be charged higher premiums than men. Cruz went on for a while, eventually settling on the issue of mandated coverage for ObamaCare, such as the example of a 101-year-old being forced to have maternity coverage. Sanders was more succinct in his reply, and translating for his colleague in the Senate, explained the Republican Party could make no such guarantees. Cruz, in his follow-up, threw out a lot of stats about how young people, in particular, have been hurt by ObamaCare. They could be true. Then again, they could be misleading or just made up. Suffice it to say, though, that despite the myth-making of Republicans about the ACA, many millennials have actually been able to better afford health insurance as a result of subsidies, or have been protected against unexpected events such as getting laid off by virtue of the provision that allows them to stay on their parents’ plans until the age of 26. If nothing else, this muddies the proverbial waters on Ted Cruz’s “facts.” Man, does that guy love “facts.”

Dana Bash stepped in at this point to redirect the conversation a bit. First, she circled back to the notion of women over the age of 60, and asked Bernie Sanders whether or not he believed they should be paying for maternity coverage. Sanders acknowledged it was a problem, but something that could be looked at going forward, before stressing the idea that pregnancy should not be considered a pre-existing condition. Bash then turned to Ted Cruz, and inquired whether or not a replacement for the Affordable Care Act would maintain the provision that women do not have to pay out-of-pocket for birth control. Uh-oh, Ted—it’s a question with religious undertones! Sen. Cruz stuck to his playbook, assailing government mandates, and making some weird analogy about driving a Lamborghini. Sen. Sanders, in his answer, while questioning the merits of the fancy car metaphor (“I think it’s a bit disingenuous to talk about driving a fancy car with getting access to healthcare when you’re sick”) raised perhaps the most significant point: that the GOP has incentive to repeal the ACA to give the top 2% sizable tax breaks, much as they would abolish the estate tax. Then Cruz started talking about a flat tax, and once more, the debate threatened to go off the rails. Jake Tapper really couldn’t have called for a commercial break any sooner than he did.

Round Eight: Possible Side Effects of Listening to Ted Cruz Include Nausea and Suicidal Thoughts

With the final audience question of the night, Colorado resident Cole Gelrod, whose daughter was diagnosed with a heart defect and who can’t pay for her prescription drugs with his employer-provided insurance, but can do so under the auspices of ObamaCare and his state’s Medicaid expansion, asked Ted Cruz what the plan was to address the rising cost of prescription drugs and how to deal with insurance plans in which companies can choose not to cover life-saving drugs. Sen. Cruz basically said it’s the FDA’s fault, because these drugs are getting approved in other countries. Ted Cruz should just make his motto, “When in doubt, blame the government.” Bernie Sanders, while he agreed with his colleague to the extent that FDA-approved drugs should be affordable and available to Americans to re-import at cheaper rates, and vowed to re-introduce legislation to facilitate this function, also said we as a nation should be negotiating lower prices through Medicare. Cruz once again—wait for it—blamed the government. Sanders—wait for it—blamed pharmaceutical companies and corporate greed, and professed the belief that these corporations and exorbitant executive pay should be reined in. Sen. Cruz was all, like, well, I don’t think the government should dictating who gets paid what. This is America, not some socialist nation. Sen. Sanders was all, like, you know, places like Denmark, Finland and Sweden aren’t that bad. Even if they do put pickled herring in mustard sauce.

Dana Bash then broke out an air horn and pressed it loudly for several seconds before redirecting the two debaters to the subject of taxes, whereupon she asked Bernie, if he is opposed to taxes going up on the middle class, why should those individuals and families who go without some form of health insurance be subject to a tax penalty? Bernie was all, like, well, they shouldn’t. The rich should be paying more, but in the meantime, we have to try to get needed revenue for benefits somehow. Ted Cruz was then all, like, well, if you don’t like the tax penalty, why did you help write ObamaCare? Your health care plan is going to cost us trillions of dollars. And Bernie Sanders was all, like, yeah, well, your tax plan gives the top 1% most of the benefits, as does doing away with the estate tax. Now, if we were to enact the Sanders plan—

And that’s when CNN cut to commercial to fulfill its obligation to its corporate overlords. Buy more cars! And more prescription drugs! WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?!?

Round Nine: Closing Statements

I’m going to breeze through this final section, because I’m sure by now you know where each of the debaters are headed. Sen. Bernie Sanders sees major problems in Congress being beholden to the wants of the insurance, medical equipment, and pharmaceutical industries, and the United States being the wealthiest nation in the world and lagging behind other developed nations with respect to health care. Sen. Ted Cruz sees ObamaCare as a failure as evidenced by high premiums and deductibles, canceled insurance policies, and lies, lies, lies! from Barack Obama, and wonders why we would give yet more power to government to mediate health care. That’s basically all you need to know from this exercise. Oh, and DON’T F**KING CONGRATULATE SOMEONE WITH MS! I’M TALKING TO YOU, TED CRUZ!

And the winner was? CNN? Listen—who you think “won” the debate probably depends on whose point of view most closely resembles your own. To that end, I’m not all that interested. I personally think Bernie Sanders made the more compelling arguments, but as a self-identifying progressive, I naturally would. Others watching or reading the transcript might believe Ted Cruz mopped the floor with the senator from Vermont, and furthermore, that Democrats are bringing down this country. Seemingly more and more these days, Americans, buoyed by the news they absorb through cable news channels and social media echo chambers, hear what they want to hear and believe what they want to believe. Still, that so many people are engaged on these issues and others even after the election signals to me that Americans are understanding the importance of continued involvement with political news, if not the merits of volunteering in campaigns or running for public office themselves. Accordingly, I hope events of this sort are scheduled in the future. Maybe a debate on commercial banking regulation between Elizabeth Warren and Steve Mnuchin, or, say, a debate on education practices between Betsy DeVos, and—I don’t know—a freaking fifth-grader. Average Americans should have a way to be exposed to the major parties’ stances on a variety of issues in a highly accessible, comprehensible way.

It’s the dawning of a new age in U.S. politics. More power to the people, I say! And more debates! You know, provided they don’t involve Don Lemon.

Together We’ll Go Far—But *We* Don’t Have a Golden Parachute to Break Our Fall

“Together we’ll go far.” What a crock of shit. (Photo Credit: Reed Saxon/AP)

When multi-million- or multi-billion-dollar businesses go belly up, those lowest on the proverbial totem pole tend to be the ones hit the hardest. Similarly, when these organizations are caught doing something clearly illegal/unethical, the company’s stock will take a hit, negatively impacting shareholders (in addition, of course, to the victims of the larger malfeasance), and officers may get fired or are forced to resign, but often, top executives won’t be held accountable, with their corporations settling to avoid admission of guilt. Or these executives will be sent out of the door with a nice severance/benefits package, and perhaps an advisory or board position—and still no assignment of culpability. If you or I mess with or take someone’s money, we are thieves, criminals, destined for the jailhouse. If banks and other financial institutions play fast and loose with people’s savings, they not only aren’t liable to be challenged on taking risky positions, but may even be rewarded for their behavior. No blame, and little disincentive for them not to do the same with more clients. If you think this is unfair, you’re not alone. However, the notion this is allowed to continue unfettered, especially after the recklessness that caused a global financial crisis, perhaps says as much about the 99% as it does the top 1% pulling the strings and reaping the lion’s share of the benefits.

The latest exhibit in the annals of corporate/individual greed is the recently-revealed scandal surrounding Wells Fargo, in which thousands of employees created millions of fake accounts to charge unsuspecting customers, apparently in line with a company culture that prioritized sales and thus encouraged cheating to make numbers. The usual minimalist mea culpas were issued: we messed up, we’re sorry, we’re giving back money to the customers who were overcharged, we’re reviewing our process controls, we’re doing away with sales goals. You know the routine by now. And while the 5,000+ employees and managers directly responsible for the illegitimate practices have been let go, the figures at the upper echelons of the organization and ultimately culpable have not been held accountable, either being allowed to keep their positions or glide away on a golden parachute/retirement package worth tens of millions in salary and benefits.

Susan M. Ochs, writing for The New York Times, details how key figures have yet to be touched by this scandal, and it’s unclear if they ever will, at least not in a meaningful way. Carrie Tolstedt, who retired in July from her position as divisional senior vice president for community banking, allowed this unchecked manipulation of sales numbers to occur on her watch, and for her failure to correctly manager her responsibilities, she received a retirement package valued at nearly $125 million. Meanwhile, the head honcho of the entire company, CEO John Stumpf, has apologized, but hasn’t offered to resign. Imaginably, people who deal in policy involving the big banks and consumer protections, such as Elizabeth Warren, have demanded accountability from Stumpf and others high up on the Wells Fargo food chain. Moreover, it is not as if there aren’t consequences for Wells Fargo now and potentially in the future. In tangible terms, the bank was fined some $185 million in penalties by a consortium of federal regulatory agencies, and going forward, it and other major players in the banking industry stand to suffer from a backlash from a public that already approaches the top American banks with a measure of distrust and trepidation. Yet at Wells Fargo, authorizations—implicit or explicit—of shady cross-selling tactics are apparently treated as exemplary leadership. Attaboy or girl! You deserve even more stock options!

When someone, say, commits a violent crime or repeatedly violates drug laws, we are generally loath to release him or her into the public eye of his or her own recognizance. The killer cannot be trusted not to take the life of another person, so he or she must be kept behind bars, in a cell, cordoned off from good, law-abiding citizens. The junkie, the addict—he or she cannot be counted on to avoid relapse, and must be saved from himself or herself, or else presumably risk tainting those of cleaner habits and disposition. While not to diminish the potential destructiveness of these types of acts, however, we might consider that crime like the kind perpetrated by agents of Wells Fargo—and yes, I do consider what they did tantamount to theft and/or fraud—can impact yet more lives.

Murder and drugs, beyond the obvious damage it can to do victim and perpetrator alike, can disrupt families and whole communities. In the case of corporate crime, meanwhile, not only do hundreds of thousands of consumers stand to be affected, as in the Wells Fargo scandal, but consumer confidence in financial institutions and the economy at large may suffer. As much as economists and other experts may point to high-frequency trading and “shadow banking” as instrumental in the economy’s near-collapse nearly a decade ago, “too big to fail” commercial and investment banks are not exempt from criticism, nor should they be as dangerously unregulated as they still are. In instances of egregious misconduct by top corporate executives, there is seldom an earnest admission of personal responsibility, and even the financial penalties levied on larger organizations may be little more than a drop in the bucket, or slap on the wrist, or whatever metaphor you’d prefer. Unlike drug users or murderers, too, they are permitted to keep reaching into the proverbial cookie jar and fueling the susceptibility of the public interest. Their addiction effectively is a gambling addiction, and company executives surely don’t mind playing when clients and taxpayers are providing the cash for the chips.

It’s at this point where we might consider why “white-collar crime,” as it may be broadly labeled, does not inspire the same sort of public outrage as others crimes about which we hear endlessly on the news. Smash-and-grab robberies. Shootings. Stabbings. Acts of vandalism. The answers, as they may be, are manifold. Certainly, as far as reporting on crime on the nightly news goes, there would seem to be an emotional/psychological component to which offenses get top billing, not to mention, frankly, a racial one. Tales of corporate misdeeds and, shall we say, creative accounting, are not quite as “juicy” as stories about armed assailants robbing convenience stores, or high school teachers having sex with their students, or drug dealers getting caught with sums of cocaine and pot in police busts. As for the racial component, the amorphous threat of the “unidentified black male” is so ever-present on these telecasts that he should get secondary billing on a lot of these 11:00 PM airings. While I would be misrepresenting things to act as if black males do not commit crimes, the agenda of a lot of media outlets at the local or regional levels appears to be in line with the building of tension by appealing to people’s fears and prejudices (“What commonly-used household product may be shortening your life span? Find out more after the break! The answer may surprise you!”), and assuaging that tension with the reassurance that criminals are being brought to justice for their bad behavior. Another “thug” behind bars. We can all sleep more easily tonight.

I think it’s more than all that, though. On one level, I think America’s love for the corporation—or at least its tacit acceptance of the place of big-name companies in our daily life—has inured many of us to corporate overstepping of bounds in its various forms, often brought about by greed or recklessness. Wells Fargo customers may not exactly be happy with the conduct of the company that manages their money, but how many of them are likely to switch banks outright? And unless they’ve decided to say the hell with it and keep all their earnings under the ol’ mattress, where do they go if not back to Wells Fargo? Chase? Bank of America? Citibank? Some other large bank which very well may have its own troubled history of doing business amid controversy?

Just thinking about my immediate circumstances, I can see all kinds of ties to big players in different industries in various products I buy and own. The cup of coffee I got from Starbucks. The Microsoft Surface from which I type this post. The Samsung Galaxy phone I carry around with me, which also now serves as my alarm clock and my camera, with service from Verizon. The Toyota I drive. Products and services from multinational corporations pervade much of what we do and how we live. When we’re in bed with corporate entities—perhaps literally if we’re talking about a mattress company or something like that—how likely are we to want to believe they are anything but good to us? Wal-Mart can’t do bad things—it’s where I get stuff super-cheap. Exxon Mobil can’t be bad—it’s where I get gas for my car. Halliburton can’t—OK, is there anyone besides Halliburton executives and energy industry lobbyists who are going to defend the company on the subject of ethics? I feel dirty just mentioning the name—though maybe that’s the oil talking. Or their connection to Dick Cheney. That picture might just haunt my dreams.

Another aspect of this toleration for corporate hijinks seems to be that companies can issue fairly standard apologies without admitting precisely what they did wrong, profess they will “fix” or “review” what led to the crisis, and the American public will go along with it. Or they won’t exactly go along with it, but they don’t know how much they rightly can do about it. Or they just don’t care. Whatever exactly defines the reaction of the average consumer to corporate scandals, businesses who do wrong are given leeway to restructure or otherwise make changes, afforded trust and discretion when a) they have violated our trust, and b) they have exhibited little to no discretion. Hearkening back to the discussion of the addict policing himself or himself, and on the heels of the worst global financial crisis of this generation, this doesn’t seem to make much sense for Fortune 500 companies, especially banks.

And yet the banking/investment industry, as deservedly low as the public confidence is in it, points in its political lobbying to the notion it is overregulated. Now, to be fair, given the chance, Congress can surely regulate the shit out of things. As it has been argued, small businesses in the United States and elsewhere, imperiled by the unwillingness of lenders to extend credit after the Great Recession, have further been stifled by regulatory red tape, a problem the Obama administration, despite its successes, has not adequately addressed. Still, this whining about restrictions from commercial and investment banks, some of whom were contributors to the credit crisis, rings hollow with John Q. Public—especially when they are in a more precarious state than they were before the subprime mortgage meltdown threatened to bring the global economy to its knees. According to a recent Brookings Institute paper co-authored by Natasha Sarin and Lawrence Summers of Harvard University, despite regulatory measures designed to alleviate risk of an economic collapse or another near-collapse as it was in 2007 to 2009, information from financial markets yields little evidence that major financial institutions are significantly safer than they were before the crisis—and may actually be worse off than they were pre-crisis.

The knee-jerk reaction, of course, from reading the preliminary conclusions drawn from this data, is that the regulation is thus ineffective, and so it makes sense to abandon stricter rules for banks and other lenders. Sarin and Summers, however, in cautioning against complacency in thinking that increased attention to regulation necessarily leads to increased security, also advise against treating these observations as a case against Dodd-Frank, Sarbanes-Oxley and other legislation intended to bring greater accountability to the American financial sector. After all, maybe the problem is that the regulations aren’t targeting the right aspect or don’t go far enough in what they aim to prevent. Then again, maybe Wall Street banks and other high-profile financial institutions still aren’t following specified guidelines like they should. Which is great, except wasn’t that part of the problem to begin with?

So, what’s the lesson here? That is, where do we go from here? Wells Fargo is by no means the only financial institution to serve as a culprit in the use of shady tactics to satisfy sales goals, and undoubtedly, it won’t be the last. The aforementioned Carrie Tolstedt. whose exorbitant retirement benefits package has drawn the ire of many critics, including the likewise aforementioned Elizabeth Warren, should be called on to, at the very least, forfeit/return the $7.3 million bonus she received in her final year of work for the bank. CEO John Stumpf and CFO John Shrewsberry, meanwhile, should resign, and this shouldn’t even be a talking point. If it were a few bad actors perpetrating the fraud at Wells Fargo, it could be rationalized that they were rogue employees and there is or was no culture problem within the company, but with 5,000+ abusing an already-flawed system? It’s evident the organization has an issue with setting the right tone at the top, such that Stumpf and Shrewsberry should go, and Wells might even need to hire from outside the current ranks to secure a chief executive candidate untouched by its current controversy. On top of personnel issues, Wells Fargo should be independently observed to verify it meets its new standards for its “process controls” and that it keeps its promise to abolish its previous sales-incentive model, and it shouldn’t even be negotiable. You don’t want so much oversight and so many regulations? Try doing the right thing for a change.

Looking at these matters more holistically in terms of corporate benefits and pay, Wells Fargo’s golden parachutes/retirement packages for Tolstedt and others, and similar rewards even in the face of abhorrent conduct for executives in comparable companies, need to be addressed by some sort of legislation or other safeguard which specifies a limit for bonuses and certain performance incentives. Furthermore, as specifically regards banks that provide both commercial and investment banking, they should be broken up by way of a re-enactment of Glass-Steagall or another similar provision. How should they do it? Let them figure it out! “Too big to fail”? Even more reason to break them up, and either way, they shouldn’t be too big to jail! At a point in time in the United States when income and wealth inequality are worsening, and mistrust of various institutions, including banks, is incredibly high, Wells Fargo’s actions leading to the scandal could and should be a tipping point for large-scale reform of corporate business practices. As Patrick Watson, writing for Forbes, believes, this fiasco foretells another financial crisis larger and worse than the one leading to the Great Recession. When it hits, those individuals at the top of their respective companies and those with golden parachutes will be fine. As usual, it’s the 99% on the bottom who will bear the brunt of the damage. “Together we’ll go far”? The f**k we will.

Bernie Sanders vs. Corporate America: The Three-Round Showdown on Financial Responsibility

Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee? Not exactly, but Bernie hasn’t been shy about mixing it up with various high-profile CEOs. (Image retrieved from

If there’s one thing Bernie Sanders has succeeded in doing this election cycle, it’s pissing people off. The wealth of amateur economists and financial experts opining in “Comments” section of news websites and on social media who apparently think Sanders is a flaming idiot who hates America, doesn’t understand simple math, and wants to tax you to the point you are forced to live in a cardboard box on the street, or at least a more stately cardboard duplex with a communal cardboard pool. The Clinton supporters who think Bernie should have never been in the race, should stop attacking her candidate, and should get off his unicorn and accept the cold, hard realities of pragmatism. Those social critics who would depict Sanders as an enemy of capitalism, coal, innovation, Israel, the media, Newtown, CT, poor white people, Wall Street, women, and somehow, both the world’s rich and the world’s poor. Indeed, for all the goodwill Bernie Sanders has built up among scores of young voters and those who have sought a non-Clintonian path to the Democratic Party’s renaissance, the democratic socialist secular Jew has inspired his fair share of antipathy over the past year and change.

One particular group which has drawn the ire of Bernie and his faithful, and which has responded to his criticisms in kind, is that of corporate executives, particularly those of General Electric Company, Verizon Communications, Inc., and the Walt Disney Company. By now, you understand I am an avid supporter of the senator from Vermont (if you don’t fully comprehend this, just take a gander at this other piece I wrote for United States of Joe; please—I could use the views), so I can’t really be considered an unbiased judge in the war of words that has manifested between the two opposing sides. I will thus present their arguments to you—the members of the general public—and let you decide their merits. So, without further ado—and not adieu, because that makes no bleeping sense—let us have our debate. Grab your scorecards—this could get moderately interesting.

Round 1: Bernie Sanders vs. Jeffrey R. Immelt, General Electric CEO

In the blue corner, we have the Bruiser from Brooklyn, the Fighting Father of Free Tuition, the Rabble-Rouser of Raging Against the MachineBernard “Bernie” Sanders!

Sanders on GE’s taxes: “From 2008 to 2013, while GE made over $33.9 billion in United States profits, it received a total tax refund of more than $2.9 billion from the Internal Revenue Service. G.E.’s effective U.S. corporate income tax rate over this six year period was -9 percent. In 2012, GE stashed $108 billion in offshore tax havens to avoid paying income taxes. If this practice were outlawed, GE would have paid $37.8 billion in federal income taxes that year.”

Sanders on GE’s outsourcing: “GE has been a leader in outsourcing decent paying jobs to China, Mexico and other low-wage countries.”

Sanders on Immelt’s compensation: “Mr. Immelt has a retirement account at General Electric worth an estimated $59 million and made $19 million in total compensation last year.”

And in the red corner, we have the Scrapper from Cincinnati, the Charging Chairman, the Jabbing Jouster of the “House that Jack Built”—Jeffrey Robert “Jeff” Immelt!

Immelt, in response to Sanders: “GE has been in business for 124 years, and we’ve never been a big hit with socialists. We create wealth and jobs, instead of just calling for them in speeches. We take risks, invest, innovate and produce in ways that today sustain 125,000 U.S. jobs. Our engineers innovate every day to build hardware and software solutions that meet real-world challenges. Our employees are proud of our company. I meet second- and third-generation employees whenever I travel across the country. I am one myself. Our suppliers and partners are proud of our company. Our communities are proud of our company. Our pride, history and hard work are real — the moral fabric of America.”

Round 1 Analysis: Ooh—going after the socialism angle—low blow, Jeff! Sanders’ charge that GE doesn’t pay any taxes has been judged to be somewhat overblown. According to this piece from Megan McArdle in The Atlantic, General Electric does, in fact, pay estimated taxes, though it may be hard to prove based on the wealth of information the company’s financial returns entail. Meanwhile, this post from David Cay Johnston of Reuters argues that General Electric has actually been paying higher taxes outside the U.S., and as such, something other than tax policy is driving the company’s multinational business strategy, though Johnston does note GE pays an awful lot of people an awful lot of money to lobby Congress with respect to corporate tax law. Then again, this confusing back-and-forth review penned by Henry Blodget for Business Insider, which navigates opposing accounts of the firm’s tax bill from New York Times editor Bill Keller and GE’s own Public Affairs department, suggests the latter may just be full of spin, to put it mildly.

Hmm, some punches have been thrown, but no knockouts. Let’s go to Round 2 and see what the action holds for us.

“Sure, we have no problem following tax laws. That’s why we spend tons of money trying to rewrite them!” (Image retrieved from

Round 2: Bernie Sanders vs. Lowell C. McAdam, Verizon Communications CEO

In the blue corner, once more, we have Bernie “Feel the Bern” Sanders! Folks, how is this septuagenarian doing it? He’s got spunk! He’s got moxie! He’s got—dare I say it—chutzpah! His fury at corporate greed is fueling his desire to fight!

Sanders, on Verizon’s taxes: Verizon, “in a given year has not paid a nickel of taxes.”

Sanders, on not doing enough for America: Verizon is not investing in American communities, particularly in the “inner cities.”

Sanders, on the conditions leading to the strike: According to Sanders, Verizon had been threatening to ship jobs overseas for those workers who did not agree to pay cuts and/or reduced benefits.

And now, in the red corner, at the spritely young age of 62, the Brawler from Buffalo, the Cornell Crusher, he believes that “better matters” and that, if you step to him, you better not miss—Lowell “The ‘C’ Stands for ‘Come at Me, Bro'” McAdam!

McAdam, on Verizon’s taxes: “His first accusation – that Verizon doesn’t pay its fair share of taxes – is just plain wrong. As our financial statements clearly show, we’ve paid more than $15.6 billion in taxes over the last two years – that’s a 35% tax rate in 2015, for anyone who’s counting.”

McAdam, on using its profits to benefit America: “In the last two years, Verizon has invested some $35 billion in infrastructure — virtually all of it in the U.S. — and paid out more than $16 billion in dividends to the millions of average Americans who invest in our stock.”

McAdam, on jobs at Verizon: “Sen. Sanders speaks of a ‘moral economy’ for America – one that respects and maintains the dignity inherent in good, middle-class jobs. He seems to think that can only happen by ignoring the transformational forces reshaping the communications industry. But nostalgia for the rotary phone era won’t save American jobs, any more than ignoring the global forces reshaping the auto industry saved the Detroit auto makers.”

Round 2 Analysis: Lowell McAdam takes Bernie Sanders’ criticisms very seriously, suggesting the Vermont senator and his rhetoric were “disconnected from reality.” Ouch. That’s a body blow, and one not unlike others leveled at him and his campaign. Once more, the judges have found that Sanders swings and misses when it comes to the claim that his target does not pay its taxes. This side-by-side analysis by David Goldman of CNN—which certainly hasn’t been biased against Sanders or anything like that this election cycle—claims that Bernie’s contention may be based on one year in particular in which Verizon paid a negative effective rate, but that this much is unclear, if not outmoded thinking. On the count of investment in America, Goldman sees Sanders’ argument as more credible; McAdam’s pointing out that Verizon has invested millions in infrastructure implies some sort of altruistic reason for this behavior, but this is the cost of doing business for them, and moreover, the telecommunications company has been criticized by people not named Bernie Sanders for being slow to expand its high-speed Internet outside of more affluent neighborhoods.

As for the whole labor dispute thing, Goldman doesn’t really take sides, but does note how Verizon has outsourced some 5,000 jobs to countries like the Dominican Republic, Mexico and the Philippines. Also, um, workers generally don’t strike without reason. For all his boasts about the company he heads, McAdam seems particularly tone-deaf on this issue, a notion supported by his annual salary which netted him about $18 million in 2015. The strike, of course, has since been ended by an agreement between the two parties, and while some provisions of the accord favor the corporation, particularly in the area of offering buyouts to employees, by and large, Verizon was deemed to be conceding on a number of key points, including job creation, pay raises, and pension cuts. In the end, disaster was avoided, but this battle presages other labor disputes which stand to erupt over bargaining power struggles between labor unions and top management. We’re going to need to go to a decisive third round.

“Verizon employees should stop complaining about their pay and benefits. I mean, I only got $18 million in compensation last year, for Christ’s sake!” (Image Source: Verizon)

Round 3: Bernie Sanders vs. Robert Alan “Bob” Iger, Walt Disney Company CEO

In the blue corner, battered and bruised but not broken, fighting establishment politics at every turn and still standing, he could really use some of that single-payer healthcare right about now but he’s not throwing in the towel—yes, it’s Bernie Sanders!

Sanders, on Disney’s pay for its workers: “Anybody make a living wage working for Disney? It’s an example of what we’re talking about when we talk about a rigged economy. Disney pays its workers wages that are so low that many of them are forced to live in motels because they cannot afford a decent place to live.”

Sanders, on Disney’s overseas jobs and production: “It would be very nice of the Disney corporation to start building factories in the United States.”

And now in the red corner, rounding out our CEO trio, the Nasty New Yorker, the Mickey Mouse Marauder, the Jew with the Ol’ One-Two—Bob Iger!

Iger, on, well, Sanders himself: “To Bernie Sanders: We created 11,000 new jobs at Disneyland in the past decade, and our company has created 18,000 in the U.S. in the last five years. How many jobs have you created? What have you contributed to the U.S. economy?”

Round 3 Analysis: Wow—look at the Disney CEO going for Sen. Sanders with the haymaker! Unfortunately, it doesn’t really connect on Bernie’s big issue—that the Walt Disney Company doesn’t pay its employees enough. As with McAdam before him, if Iger’s compensation is any indication (upwards of $45 million), his company has the means to pony up for those who receive a Disney paycheck. Either way, it’s not really Bernie’s job to create jobs, so Bob Iger’s criticism comes off as a hollow defense of Disney’s wages. Or as Dan Van Winkle of The Mary Sue put it in the headline of a report on the Sanders/Iger war of words, “Disney CEO Bob Iger Responds to Bernie Sanders’ Criticism Like a Petulant Child.”

“You’ve got organized labor in your corner, Bernie? Well, I’ve got Mickey f**king Mouse in mine! So suck on that, asshole!” (Photo Source: Gene Duncan/AP Photo/Disney)

Hmm, Bernie has seemingly held his own against three separate bigwig CEOs. Might this fight’s judges actually rule in his favor? With no TKO in this bout, we’ll have to sweat out the results and let them decide. OK, the final tallies are in. In a unanimous decision, the winner and still Heavyweight Champion—soulless corporations! And the crowd goes wild! AAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHH!

But why did they win? Because they always f**king do, that’s why. In fact, I think we’re so used to corporate America winning we’ve become inured to it, or we like their products so much we rationalize that they can’t be that bad. General Electric makes those stainless steel kitchen appliances you like so much. Verizon gives you cable, Internet and phone service—not to mention disingenuous commercials with brightly-colored balls in them. And the Walt Disney Company lets you wish upon a star—as long as you don’t infringe on their intellectual property.

It’s OK that you like these things. You’re supposed to. As innovators, these companies do great work. But just because they make Pixar movies or smartphones or windmills doesn’t mean they’re above reproach. Bernie Sanders doesn’t always include the kind of specifics you’d like in his arguments against corporate greed, so his confrontational attitude toward highly-paid executives gets qualified as the ranting and raving of a bitter old man. I firmly believe, though, that GE wouldn’t hire an army of tax lawyers and specialists if they weren’t determined to pay less here in the United States, that Verizon employees wouldn’t just go on strike for shits and giggles, and that Disney has more than enough in its coffers to bump up wages and salaries just a little. For a form of organization in the corporation of which a major purpose is to limit personal liability, we should be more than just a little cautious of these businesses who exert so much influence in the financial and political worlds.

Bernie, you may not have won this contest, but the struggle continues for you and your supporters going forward. In a country in which moneyed interests have the upper hand, we, the people, may just have the last laugh.