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Sunday, February 17, 2013

Minimum wage levels - capitalism is not the problem

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There are increasing pressures around the world for a rise in wage levels - namely in the United States and New Zealand. These claims are of course greatest in the the Western labour markets, where stagnant wages for unskilled workers have been a drain on private consumption, given the spectre of high indebtedness. The interesting aspect about these campaigns is just how little understanding there is about the issue. People simply don't understand, or don't care to acknowledge the reason why wages are down. Here are some critical facts to acknowledge:
1. Wage levels are not all stagnant: People will skills such as professionals have seen substantial increases in their wage/salary levels. It is the unskilled wage earners who have seen their wage levels go sideways because they are effectively competing with China. In 10 years they will be competing with Bangladesh and Africa. Even in the third world, the disparities are even greater, depending on whether you are providing a service to 'locals' or foreign enterprises. i.e. Software programmers in Asia are making a killing and you might think they are pocketing the 'wealth', but the trickle down is evident because these people want to distinguish themselves by eating at nice restaurants, living in upmarket apartments and buying brand-name clothes. The attitude is that, my parents suffered without these things for so long, so they want to have, and they want their parents to have, that which they went without. Some of these cultures are more savings/education-orientated than others, but most allocate cash for luxuries.
2. Capitalism is not to blame: The lack of wage growth among unskilled workers is the result of statism; that is government intervention into what were regarded as 'third world markets'. Under the guidance of the IMF and WB, most of these countries have since adopted austerity measures and liberalised their labour markets. Having conveyed a great deal of discipline, these countries are being rewarded with investment. Africa and central Asia are attracting the bulk of mining investment, SE and China, the bulk of the factory jobs. Now, its important to realise that this sudden rush of third world labour onto the global market has transformed these economies into tiger economies.

So its 2013, and there are various appeals being made for increases in the minimum wage. Is it justified? Well, you might be surprised to here me argue that it depends on the context. Generally, I would argue against minimum wages, however if one acknowledges that there is already distortion in the economy, then you might find that it actually makes more sense to adopt counter-distortive measures. The question is 'how you do it', because the wrong distortion can actually make matters worse. So what is the distortion we are talking about, and what are the impacts:
a. Immigration restrictions - There is little mobility between labour markets, and for good reason, this would be incredibly destabilising. It would be nice to expect a perfectly integrated labour market in future. But first the disparities in labour pricing have to be absorbed, and that could take another 2 decades if you think about all those workers who are still to be released from low-productivity jobs in Asia, Africa, etc. There must be 0.5-1 billion people to be absorbed into higher-pay jobs. That takes time; but rest assured no system will do it faster than the capitalist 'market system'. Are you worried about kids working in factories? As sad as this might sound; many actually welcome it. Of course there is the spectre of parents mistreating their kids, by forcing them to work long hours for the sake of personal luxuries, but this is a 'parenting' and regulation issue, not a problem with capitalism. i.e. Capitalism is trade between consenting adults (i.e. moral agents). It does not recognise a child as a moral agent, so any abuse of a child is a regulation issue.
b. Eventual absorption of excess labour - The excess of labour in third-world makets is really an issue of under-utilised labour that needs redeployment. Once that occurs, say in 20 years time, then a great many jobs will flow back to the West, if not before. The reason for the jobs flowing back earlier is that the third world, or at least some of these countries will be slow to reform their labour markets, to educate their kids, and otherwise slow to raise productivity, and curtail corruption.

So is the solution a higher minimum wage? And should there be a minimum wage at all? I will argue that there should not be a minimum wage because its a distortion upon the uptake of labour. NZ needs to price its labour competitively against other Western countries so that it can avail of niche manufacturing jobs as well as telecommunication, technical service jobs that could well be outsourced to a skilled NZ. There is always going to be a struggle for NZ to be economically relevant. The greater danger for NZ is perhaps the prospect of a resources boom - namely in energy production. If NZ became the oil sheikdom of the South Pacific, one could expect a huge gain in the currency, given its an economy of just 4.3 million people. This is a compelling point of vulnerability for any manufacturer; as well as being a point of vulnerability for a call centre. The good news is that this 'vulnerability' for manufacturers is likely to take 10 years to arise. Almost enough to make it a non-issue.

You have to ask yourself whether a minimum wage set at a sufficiently high level to make a difference would actually make a positive difference. The reality is that it makes it impossible for under-skilled people to get a job; whilst raising the wage value of people who are worth more. But it does this at the expense of others. The appeal of higher wages is that it might be construed as resulting in more money being spent in the economy, salary earners paying more tax. This is true for those who retain their job. But the problem is those who are marginalised by their lost competitiveness. Worse still is that higher wages at the top of the skill chain will merely boost spending, raising imports. We want more people employed for less, as opposed to fewer people for more. You'd expect unions to welcome this; but it appears they are only interested in the perceived gains extorted for members. They don't actually care whether their policies are effective or not. i.e. Unions will send members broke in order to retain their relevance. Kind of like the political parties who don't reveal this false dichotomy between arbitrary wages and distorted labour markets.

You might wonder whether Asian or 'emerging' markets could be enticed to raise their labour costs in order to make the West more productive. i.e. Might they welcome higher taxes on labour? The answer is that Asian countries are very poor and the culture is non-compliance for tax collection. They only tax imports, and the wealthy, because no one else has enough money, or would pay taxes. Most local governments have a litany of landowners who don't pay rates. Income taxes on the poor would be even harder. It is also not a desirable policy to tax that process of wealth creation that is creating jobs. This is what the West killed with its high-cost impositions. Asian countries are forcing the West to economise: expect more of it. If wealthier Asian countries were able to adopt a labour (say payroll tax), they would loose jobs to the informal economy, or offshore. They don't want to kill the goose that lays the golden egg. Why would you stop a process which is correcting the distortions created by governments in the first place.

If this is so simple; why are academics so confounded by the problem. Why can't economists agree? The reason they can't agree is because economists are parasites who are living off taxpayers. They are so privileged with easy money, they have become detached from the real world. They are actually not obliged to find answers. Instead they bed themselves down into 'schools of thought' and spend the rest of their tenure   fighting it out with other schools, without ever reconciling their ideas. To what end? They live in the vain hope that some bureaucrat in the PM/President's Office will proclaim them an economics genius, and henceforth they will be celebrated as the 'anointed king' of economics. They will not even care if, as was the case with John Maynard Keynes, whether the government misappropriates their ideas. This is after all why bureaucrats and academics exist - to justify government policy. Political leaders simply pick the ideas that appeal to them; that offer them a rationalisation for placing them at the centre of economic activity.

Rest assured I will never be a celebrated economist expounding like these. You have to suck up to government or business leaders to get that gravy. Nobel Prize! You must be dreaming! I'd be stoked it you'd just mention me to your kids in your next bed-time story. Yep, its a horror!

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Friday, February 8, 2013

Financial plan for the homeless

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NZ is the arse-end of the world; neverthless within this stagnant economy there are cities which are doing relatively well, such as Hamilton, Auckland, Palmerston North, Christchurch (belatedly). But within those cities, as well as elsewhere, there are people who are struggling to make ends meet. We might well consider this to be the 'doughnut effect'.
From Hamilton, NZ comes this interesting story of a homeless man living on government job benefits but otherwise with $70K in savings. This is an interesting issue both from a personal finance perspective, as well as from a public policy perspective. In this post I want to consider 4 issues:
1. How this man is impacted by National Party policy
2. How he would be effected by Labour Party policy
3. How he would be affected by ACT Party policy
4. My public policy advice to these parties
5. My financial planning advice for this man - even though he is not asking

National Party policy impact
What I like about this guy is that he breaks the stereotype of what we have come to expect of homeless people. Anyone who has been to Japan realises how proud the Japanese homeless people are. Its as if the origin of their pride was their mistreatment by the Japanese government. Yes, another success for representative democracy. Hoorah!
The National Party is the current party and they are paying this guy $180 less $12 per week for the interest earned on his $70K savings. Firstly, the guy should be applauded for saving money, and working prior to his last decade of joblessness. It is not easy to work in a country when you are relatively unskilled, surrounded by more able-bodied persons, and amidst a labour oversupply. Its not all bad. He has a proven track record of working. 
What is shameless about the conduct of this administration, and indeed, all governments is their blatant ignorance and incompetence. Some voice should be shouting inside of them saying that "This guy is a value; not to me, but to someone. His life is not worth zero". Now you might say that the government gives him $168 per week, so they are not treating him as zero. Not right. Governments don't have money. You the taxpayer are financing this man to aimlessly drift around Hamilton in the vain hope of his getting a job. The sad issue is that he is just going to get more mentally ill, he is going to get beat up, so he will no longer be employable, or even 'useful'. Post-traumatic stress will probably ensue. So then we have a 'disability pension', with all the rights and 'obligations' upon you, the taxpayer that that entails. What is apparent is just how detached governments are for the money. If this was your money, you would have some discretion to withhold it if you did not like what the guy was doing with it. Maybe you wouldn't give it to him anyway, because 'it's not your problem'. The thing is - it is. The government is taking $168/week for this guy alone, from you & a great deal of other people. It's your problem! You don't take issue with it because you feel disempowered. It's not kindness. You're indifferent to this guy's existence; and you'd not allow yourself to consider his plight, because it's out of your control. The problem is too big! It's your problem. You have a government responsible for such things. Problem solved! 
I guess the National Party are hoping that this guy should hang on until the job market recovers. The problem is - he is 60yo - and there is going to be an excess of labour for the next 2 decades because of the liberalisation of global labour markets after collectivist (socialist) governments collapsed, and purportedly saw the error of their ways. It will take 20 years for capitalism to solve the problem caused by collectivism over centuries. It's a big backlog. So basically, the National Party is offering voters no respite. They are indifferent to this guy's happiness. It might be argued that it's his decision to stay on the street; but ultimately it's you - the taxpayer - who will pay when he gets beaten up. So there will be a hospital bill and invalid pension. The good news for indifferent taxpayers is that this guy will immobilised, and will probably die early of diabetes. Unless there is more costly intervention.
So, to you this guy is not looking good at a $168/week investment. He's what you might call a drag on the economy. He is right to feel like he deserves his money. He's playing by the rules, he's paid taxes, and so he has a sense of entitlement. Interestingly, in Australia, he could not get a jobless allowance if he had more than $10,000 in the bank or investments. But is that the issue? I know because I claimed for a time between jobs when I was young. It pissed me off too because, like him, I argued, why can't I get the 'dole' when I pay taxes. There are people with $500,000 houses who can get it because they manage to have less than $10,000 in cash. The implication for NZ is that welfare is a form of income insurance, whereas in Australia, it functions more as a form of nominal insolvency insurance. i.e. You get it if you lose your capacity to service costs of living. If you have cash, you can still service your costs. 
My interest here however is not the equity or inequity of welfare, but the waste. This guy could be doing something useful. He is not worth anything in this economy....and that ought not sit with people so well. He could function as a child carer's assistant, a trainee, carer for elderly, cleaning the streets. There are any number of things he could be doing, even if they entailed no sense of efficacy. What a waste when there are things needing consideration. Instead the government says, take the day off....just fill in these forms to say you are looking for a job, you have no chance in hell of getting for the next 2 decades - when he will be 80yo. By the way, I see no reason why he cannot be working until he is 90yo. Old people regret giving up meaningful activity.  
I'd not be surprised to see National take the Australian approach in future. This would in a way be worse because it would give him greater financial apprehension because he's dwindling away his savings, and he might be more frugal with it, to the point of diminishing his diet, resulting in the decline of his health. It would incentivise him to find work if he was capable of competing; but realistically he is not. He has not worked in a decade. 
Labour Party policy impact
Now, looking at the NZ Labour Party. They have always advocated minimum wages. That will only make him less employable...even if he had a running chance. At 60yo, he doesn't in the contemporary labour over-supply. In fact higher minimum wages will add to the unemployment queues. I suspect Labour would increase benefits to people like him, but really no substantive change, to this guy's life, since he is saving for the future. 
ACT Party policy impact
Now, one might expect the ACT Party to be the 'economic rationalists'. I would expect however their position to have the most beneficial impact on joblessness, which would ensure a great many youths would get a job, i.e. they would lower/scrap minimum wage, they would cut regulation. The problem I have with ACT, is that whilst they hold the upper leg, they fail to consider: 
1. The impact of market distortion - stripping away some distortions creates other distortions
2. The legacy of market distortion - stripping away distortions creates other distortions

My policy suggestion
The value of this guy is not zero. The value of the taxpayer is not negative $168 per week. These people are important, if only to themselves. These people have hopes and aspirations. These people have real grievances; and most of them arise systematically, and as some horrid legacy of government intervention, often stretching back 100s of years. It will not be cured overnight, it will probably take a generation....but we are not solving the problem. These people are useful. You cannot rely on the market to solve the problem if you distort the market; if you market says they are worth 'zero' or 'negative' value, when by any objective standard, we know there are valuable things which they could be doing, but don't because centralised governments can't get around to organising solutions. Why is John Key so busy? Well, he's focused on changing the term of parliament. You have got to be joking? The problem is not his job term; the problem is the decision-making process which means he is ineffectual for the first and last years; not to mention the fact that it's an unaccountable, majoritive, extortion-based system. What does his priorities tell you? It's all vanity. He wants the job because it serves his vanity. He cannot honestly say he is doing a good job, so he blames the system (which is bad), but he has no solution. 
Now, I have a resolution for this problem, but it's another topic. I am concerned with this guy. The 'unemployable' worker who is useful. Offer people 'conditional support'. You can't help them get jobs in the current market if the market values them at zero, so:
1. Create opportunities for them to work 'staying alive', i.e. Growing food to live. NZ is currently importing foods from abroad, supermarkets are adopting huge mark-ups for these vegetables, and so people can grow here for own stake, or for sale, and live on the proceeds. 
2. People with sufficient resources like this guy can do it themselves. They have the time if they are spared the burden of 'useless job searching'. They will never get a job in market economy that is distorted. Pay them to produce food, i.e. If they have $70K plus, they can self-sponsor. If they don't, have a government sponsored scheme using contractors who tender for these programs. These people might need basic services upfront; but they will act if they are able because its meaningful work. People coming out of prison could go straight into these programs. Once taught some of these people could use their savings to build their own 'food production' scheme.

The world is currently reliant on foreign food increasingly because of low-cost emerging market labour. What is not appreciated is that, when in 20-30 years time, those country's surplus labour is fully absorbed by global markets, then their labour rates will match ours, and food production will make more sense locally. These are valuable skills we are loosing. These people could be the foundation for a budding industry; but more importantly - they are useful! And their utility to themselves and others is being wasted.

Want to rebuild NZ? Start with people left behind. Reduce the cost of looking after them; then you'd be surprised at how well the economy can run without useless government programs, without useless govt regulation. You'd be surprised how many problems like mental illness, joblessness will disappear!

My financial planning advice for this homeless guy
This guy has $70K of cash and a benefit. My advice to him is to buy a house in a depopulating place like Wanganui. The nice thing about this solution is that you have an asset, a place to retain possessions (which if you are poor, might include things other people don't want). The bad news is that you have an expense - your rates. Given the waste of money on rates, you should question the value of government. Most of you clearly don't. $1800 per year in NZ; I pay just $300 per annum in Japan for a 18-year old house. This guy could be eating salmon & rice bento box in Japan at Hokka Hokka Tai for Y420 ($NZ5.50). Back to expensive, over-serviced NZ. I would suggest he pays $65K for a house - yes they exist. If he contracted with a tenant, he might be able to secure one ahead of time. Here is how I would do it. Probably settlement takes time, so whilst being on the street for 3 months, I would try to meet someone in a similar position. It might be easier in Auckland city. I would say to them: "Look mate...we could be dead on the streets if we stay here. I have money saved for a house. If you pay me $60/week, I can give you a home, or $80 with minimal services, leaving his friend with $100/week for other costs. That gets him and a friend off the street, gives them spare money, and if gives them land to grow vegetables. The house might not appreciate, but it gives him more cashflow than the bank. Now he is discouraged from doing that because the government will say he has rental income, so his benefit will be reduced. For this reason, he will probably not declare that income, and will instead receive cash.

Perhaps the government could save money by offering financial advice because according to this guy's plan, he is living on the streets to get cash, placing his life/health in jeopardy, and his prospects for an early death from diabetes are enhanced. Good job gov!

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Tuesday, February 5, 2013

John Key The Moderate - what does it mean?

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John Key clearly considers himself a moderate. What does that mean?

Prime Minister John Key addressed the issue of the Waitangi Treaty at his annual Waitangi Day address, as is customary. Just as customary is to say nothing substantive, and to engage in rhetoric which contributes nothing to the issue. Now, the prospects of a settlement of Waitangi issues, some settlement of grievances, is considered extreme by Key. He sees himself in the ‘moderate’ of course, and anyone seeking resolution as ‘extreme’. After all, John Key is hardly moving the debate towards anything. I’m an Aussie…I have nothing to gain from this issue. Do I want to see Maori recognised as ‘first occupants’ and worthy of sovereignty? No, that ship has sailed. Perhaps its easier for Key to dismiss the issue if he can erect a ‘straw argument’ like that and dismiss all people who feel a sense of dismay at where the Waitangi settlement is ‘not’ going.
Key speaks of ‘public goodwill’ as if that is a meaningful conception in the context. Either a resolution achieves one of two things:
1. It achieves the interpreted objectives of the Waitangi Treaty
2. It achieves something better
I would argue that the framework and values of the Waitangi Treaty are illegitimate and irrelevant; not because the treaty was not signed by most of the tribes, nor by the British Crown, but because its values are not fixing with justice. This is an opportunity to achieve something more than the treaty sought. At the time of the Treaty, the British people were subjugated to the collective notion of ‘empire’, and that concept ought to be equally as abhorrent to Pakehe as Maori.
Key is making the same old tired claims of old, hoping that the issue will die. It will die by this method; but is that a desirable outcome. Key would sooner quash the aspirations of people, rather than contend with them.
‘People are not reasonable’ he might argue; or that ‘you will never please everyone’. 
But I see no great effort by any government since the Treaty was raised to address the issues. Instead, governments are only too pleased to outsource the task to the courts.
He talks of participation but offers no avenue for achieving it. No government does. It is a common attribute of all representative democracies to malign minorities. For his government that is an easier task than most considering:
1. He confronts a useless opposition
2. He need only offer token concessions to vote as a ‘extortion bloc’
3. He faces no Senate
4. The two major parties developed a Bill of Rights to create the illusion of protection; despite it making little meaningful difference to the nation’s people. Ask yourself – did it make a difference to your life? Did it address issues raised by the Treaty of Waitangi? No, it was not designed to solve problems. It was framed to avoid them. This was actually the original motive of the Treaty of Waitangi in the first place. The British government wanted to avoid conflict. It used the idea of a treaty to invoke a sense of purpose and goodwill with Maori. The Maori simply assumed it existed by matter of intent. They did not know that an unsigned document is useless. Of course, given that the British drafted it, it carries some significance….at least it terms of terms of reference.
John Key asserted that “the Treaty settlements process had given iwi the resources needed to run their own affairs, create jobs and care for their people”.
Really; was the treaty just about money and subsidised jobs? Well, it might well be about that for people who see no other motivation in life but to provide for family and do something constructive. But why can’t it be about more than that? Why can’t it be about things not even raised by the original agreement? For instance:
1. Why can’t it be about the inappropriateness of tribal leaders committing their people to a contract, regardless of whether it was in their interests or not
2. Why can’t it be about the illegitimacy of a contract with a party who does not have the legal efficacy to appreciate the merits of the contract
3. Why can’t it be a question of whether the state has the capacity to impose its will on anyone

All these value judgements are assumed. None of these moral imperatives have been proven. They are accepted because they serve the status quo, and keep people working towards goals subscribed by others. So what does that mean:
1. Working for the government – retaining only a minority stake in one’s efforts
2. Losing choices – because any other ‘non-conformist’ route is punished by lack of tax concessions, damaging your credit ranking, diminishing your right to travel to foreign countries, being denied access to certain services.
John Keys says “settlements largely relied on public good will and acknowledgement that the grievances were genuine”.
Unfortunately they are not so important to be a matter of priority after 140 years.
He argues that the “actions of "permanently aggrieved" protestors, including those at Waitangi, would endanger the public consensus there was over the issue of settling legitimate grievances”.
What a farcically meaningless comment to make. The entire purpose of a parliament is to countenance points of conflict. No, sorry, modern democracy or at least ‘conservatism’ entails avoiding those morally questionable issues that you cannot resolve. It therefore has to be about concrete, self-event things like money. Well, they are not self-evident, but both sides of government seem able to handle those. You might wonder how without conceptual frame of reference. But in their case, it’s all about extortion or ‘political pull’, and their capacity to make it happen.
“Public good will should not be taken for granted. It needs to be treated with respect. It is short-sighted and counter-productive of activists to use tactics and language which have the effect of eroding public support for initiatives aimed at turning around the very situation that the activists are complaining about”.
If you think about it…that is actually a nice, drawn-out way of saying, as Hitler did:
“You are nothing, your nation is everything”.
Hitler had no time to waste on fluff. The modern political party lives on fluff. Whilst they fluff around, they must be making money. Why would you want to preside over government without making money? Where is the sense of pride in being ineffectual? There must be something in it…certainly no self-respect. These issues have been kicking around for 140 years. We are about to have a court case – waste of money – as Maori question whether they have a legal claim to the water in the Mighty River Corporation privatisation. It’s a joke. Is it extreme to raise that as an issue. Well, the Supreme Court did not seem to dismiss the issue out of hand. If one wants to examine the track record of John Key, the National Party, Labour Party or indeed the entire parliament, ask yourself what effort their government took to seek peace in countries taking protection of rights…and yet in the name of liberty or democracy, they are entering Iraq. It must surely be about money/oil? Why nothing about:
1. East Timor
2. PNG
3. Solomon Islands
4. Fiji
5. Muslims of Mindanao
6. Australian aborigines

Even in this last case, long considered ‘extremists’, the Moros of Mindanao in the Philippines are finally getting some justice. No thanks to Western adherents to high standards of conduct. This is despite NZ having very little trade with the Philippines.
I’m no ‘wet-nosed’ liberal. I just think governments ought to be motivated by something more than rhetoric to keep their jobs, to lock in some mindless state of subservient harmony. I think Western governments are transfixed on Japan as a model of how to achieve a ‘compliant society’. In Japan, people don’t question government. The two major parties do as they please. Celebrities tie themselves to governments, and in the end they are seduced by it.
“Turning around the current waste of human potential would do more for Maori and for New Zealand than probably any other single change”.
This is undoubtedly the case; but first John Key has to identify the nature of the ‘waste’…why the human potential of Maori has been diminished. I can identify several reasons:
1. Catch-up: Maoris started behind – they were handicapped from a time going back 130 years.
2. Legacy: They were left with an entrenched legacy of ‘Maoridom’ which rested on the premise that they were disempowered, marginalised victims, that any rhetoric of justice was not real; it was just for show. They were not given or confronted with the values which made Pakehe successful and Maori unsuccessful. Those issues were avoided because they feel compelled to leave in place the notion of a collective Maori identity, which has greatly diminished the lives of all indigenous persons around the world. It was about ‘achieving compliance’ in the short term. The implication however has meant 140 years of unresolved contention. This government, like the others, will not resolve it.
“He spoke approvingly of a United Maori Mission boarding hostel for 50 boys within the Auckland Grammar zone, saying it gave those boys a chance for a good education”.
This is not a basis for prosperity among Maori; its an elitist argument which says:
1. These Pakehe wannabes are your custodians because they are educated and think like us ‘white folk’
2. These people are successful because they are very smart, and probably wealthier, and from a good family, so there is no reason you can’t succeed like them.
“It is one of the reasons why we have a positive and forward-looking relationship between iwi and Crown. I have no doubt that we New Zealanders are better off because of it”.
No John, you don’t have a relationship with Maori. You have a relationship with the only people your governments sanction to represent Maori. You decided by forming a coalition with the Maori Party that these people are worthy of being in a coalition. You went out of your way to strike that deal, as king maker, because it suits your agenda. Most Maori don’t subscribe to your distorted world view because you have popularised these people. No doubt your ‘Auckland Grammar boarders’ will be targeted by your party as you attempt to brand your party as the part for the people. You are only so long as you dumb people down and remain dumbfounded by execution paralysis.

Quotes from NZ Herald, 6th Feb 2013.

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