Now that the conventions are over and we’ve all been reminded of what a dangerous thing a mob is, it’s time to revisit Bill Kauffman’s excellent piece from The American Conservative (2012), “Who Needs A President?”

This is collected in Bill’s most recent book, Poetry Night at the Ballpark and Other Scenes From an Alternative America, an FPR title no personal or public library should be without. (Own it today!)

And now, without further adieu …

Who Needs a President?

No matter which hollow man occupies the bunker at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the evidence from 225 years points to an inescapable conclusion: the Founders erred horribly in creating the presidency. To invest in one man quasi-kingly powers over the 13 states then, 300 million people and half a continent today, is madness. And it didn’t have to be this way.

Many Anti-Federalists proposed, as an alternative to what they called the “president-general,” either a plural executive—two or more men sharing the office, a recipe for what a sage once called a wise and masterly inactivity—or they wanted no executive at all. Federal affairs would be so limited in scope that they could be performed competently and without aggrandizement by a unicameral legislature—that is, one house of Congress—as well as various administrative departments and perhaps a federal judiciary.

The New Jersey Plan, fathered by William Paterson of the Springsteen State, was the small-f federal option at the Constitutional Convention. It is the great decentralist what-might-have-been. The New Jersey Plan provided for a unicameral Congress with an equal vote for each state, and copresidents chosen by Congress for a single fixed term and removable by Congress if so directed by a majority of state governors.

This would have saved us from the cult of the presidency, the imperial presidency, the president as the world’s celebrity-in-chief—the whole gargantuan mess.

One reason for the disastrous engorgement of presidential powers was that all parties at the Convention tacitly agreed that the first president would be George Washington, whom even the most suspicious Anti-Federalists admired. How much more protective of our liberties would the Framers have been, one wonders, if the putative first president was a man less universally respected than Washington: say, John Hancock?

Consider South Carolina delegate Pierce Butler’s admission in a letter of May 1788 that the president’s “Powers are full great, and greater than I was disposed to make them. Nor … do I believe they would have been so great had not many of the members cast their eyes towards General Washington as President; and shaped their Ideas of the Powers to be given to a President, by their opinions of his Virtue. So that the Man, who by his Patriotism and Virtue, Contributed largely to the Emancipation of his Country, may be the Innocent means of its being, when He is lay’d low, oppress’d.”

The Framers, so often credited with farsightedness, saw no farther than the noble Washington. Only the Anti-Federalists, it seems, could envision Lyndon B. Johnson or George W. Bush. Well, I hate to break it to the demigods of the Philadelphia Convention, but George Washington had not discovered the elixir of eternal life. He was not going to live forever, let alone serve as president for the life of the republic. Lesser men would come along, and be granted those same powers, and the powers would expand, as the executive branch expanded, until you have men I’d not trust to serve as Exalted Rulers of the Batavia Elks Club being serenaded by “Hail to the Chief” and sending hundreds of thousands of American boys to the other side of the world to kill and die for… whatever it was and is that men killed and died for in Vietnam and Iraq.

The key vote of the Convention was not the famous Connecticut Compromise, approved on July 16, 1787, which provided for equality of representation in the Senate, but rather the vote of June 19 on Rufus King’s motion that William Paterson’s New Jersey Plan was “not admissible.” By a vote of seven states to three, with Maryland divided, the Convention approved King’s motion. James Madison’s nationalizing Virginia Plan was to be the markup document.

A poet who wrote and lived just north of Boston, an Anti-Federalist of sorts, wrote about roads not taken.

What if delegates from the Anti-Federalist states of New Hampshire and Rhode Island had been present on June 19? What if the Anti-Federalist Mercer had been there to tip Maryland’s vote? What if Connecticut had flipped? With a tweak here and epiphany there, and maybe a timely attack of gout thrown in for good measure, what if enough votes had shifted so that the New Jersey Plan had been the template of the new Constitution?

Would a monument (modest, naturally) to William Paterson greet the occasional visitor to the sleepy Federal City of … wait, there would be no Federal City. No Washington, D.C. Congress probably would meet in Philadelphia, where the presidents of the United States, whose names the citizens never can quite recall, also keep their spartan offices.

Maybe we shoulda taken that road…

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Jason Peters
Jason Peters professes English at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois, where he teaches courses in Milton, the Catholic novel, Environmental literature, British Romanticism, and American literature prior to 1900.  While in Illinois he pines for the mysterious and musical tea-colored trout streams of his native Michigan, whither he is trying to repatriate full-time in order to raise cattle and chickens, make beer, and scourge the follies of higher ed.  (Read an attempt here.) His work has appeared in such places as the ­Sewanee Review, the South Atlantic Quarterly, English Language Notes, Explicator, American Notes and Queries, Christianity and Literature, Orion, First Principles, University Bookman, and the Journal of Religion and Society. He is also the editor of Wendell Berry: Life and Work (University Press of Kentucky 2007), Land! The Case for an Agrarian Economy, by John Crowe Ransom (University Press of Notre Dame, 2017), and co-editor of Localism in the Mass Age: A Front Porch Republic Manifesto (FPR Books, 2018). Currently he is building a fly rod and juggling just enough writing projects to prevent his completing any of them: an account of his repatriation efforts (tentatively titled Dispatches from Dumb-Ass Acres, by a Dumb Ass), another book on Wendell Berry, another on food (tentatively titled The Culinary Plagiarist: (Mis)Adventures of a Thieving Gourmand), and yet another on that neglected genius, Owen Barfield. He has tried to break life-long debilitating addictions to basketball and golf but has been woefully unsuccessful. Peters visits Rock Island on school days but otherwise lives in Williamston, Michigan, with his longsuffering wife, their three children, and his two arthritic knees.

33 COMMENTS

  1. The presidency of the constitution is long gone. The separation of powers of the constitution is long gone. No matter what tweaks you might make to the constitution upon its writing, I suspect we’d have pretty much the same imperial presidency today anyway, given the forces that have gotten us there now.

    “A republic, if you can keep it.”
    Well, it was a good run. Nearly two centuries. Not bad.

  2. Chaps, the Founders did not generate the imperial presidency. The politicians of the last 50 odd years did.

    Harry Truman did his banking by walking across the street with his checkbook to a local branch bank. He traveled outside the United States 3x during his time in office: once on a courtesy visit to Canada (to which he could have traveled by car), once on a courtesy visit to Mexico, and once to the Potsdam Conference. He presided over some of the most consequential diplomacy of this century, but he needed only a few trips abroad so to do. After he left office, his only sources of income were the interest on his savings, his army pension, and what he could cadge from his memoirs. Presidential pensions were introduced legislated in 1958 in part because Truman was so impecunious. He’d nearly been shot dead by Puerto Rican nationalists in 1950 and one of his guards killed, but he was not offered Secret Service protection until 1965 (and if I’m not mistaken, both he and Eisenhower declined the offer; Jackie Kennedy had no guards after 1968 and her children had none after 1975, papparazzi or no papparazzi; the Nixon’s gave up their detail in 1986).

    Post-Truman, you had the escalating hypertrophy of security details, the public relations trumpeting the President’s every move (which necessitated more security), the masses of largely pointless presidential travel, and weirdly lavish living by retired presidents. Dwight Eisenhower, living with just his wife and with but one child and a modest complement of grandchildren, thought he should have a 4,000 sq. foot retirement home after decades in Army digs. Richard Nixon’s house in San Clemente, Ca encompassed 9,000 sq ft. The George W. Bush’s principal residence encompasses 8,500 sq ft in the big house and contains auxiliiary buildings to house the security details. We’ve been operating for nearly five decades under a number of fallacies: that the lives of Lady Bird Johnson, the Fords, the Carters, and Nancy Reagan were ever in danger.

    Nixon was slammed for accepting $600,000 to give 29 hours of exclusive interviews to David Frost (given the change in nominal incomes since 1976, a contextually similar sum today would be about $4,000,000, or $138,000 per hour; the Clinton’s command just shy of $200,000 for 50 minutes of boilerplate). Nixon had an excuse: a mess of overdue legal bills. Gerald Ford was the real pioneer of gross retirement buckraking. George W. Bush is a great deal less obtrusive than the Clintons because he sticks to private settings. He can still command $150,000 a speech.

    So, you need to start by scaling back the trappings.

    1. Quit announcing the president’s movements beforehand, bar for scheduled speeches. Israel gets along with small security details for its leaders in part for this reason. Cut security details accordingly.

    2. Return to the rule adhered to between 1788 and 1806: the President does not leave the country while in office (or follow the Truman rule and travel by plane only under extraordinary circumstances). Presidential travel abroad under the current regime requires 4 planeloads of staff and equipment. There’s been a telephone on the President’s desk since 1929 and we have several thousand Foreign Service officers on the payroll. He doesn’t need to be yapping to Angela Merkel face to face or attending publicity stunts like the G-8 conference.

    3. Limit domestic travel to the 70 days before a re-election date and unannounced movements. If the president needs to push legislation, is it of any use at all to be doing anything but talking to members of Congress?

    4. Defer 15% of the President’s after-tax salary for a retirement purse he can invest. Forget the pension unless he’s been on the federal payroll long enough to be vested. Defined contribution plans are expected to do for almost everyone these days.

    5. Discontinue all security details 12 years after his departure from office.

    6. Collect the archival material in all the presidential libraries in a modular facility in Kansas City. Deed over the plant, equipment and contents of each such shrine to the county government in which it is housed. Resolve never to build another one.

    7. Remove the President’s property rights over any official papers bar diaries and commonplace books written in his own hand.

    8. Slap a limit on inter-state and international contracts for honoraria which can be offered by philanthropic corporations. You get $22,000, lodgings, and air fare for speaking to Ohio state and less from anyone else. The limits would be adjusted each year according to changes in nominal personal income per capita.

    9. Appropriate a sum so that the retired president can employ secretaries to answer his mail. That’s it. The mail.

    10. Cut the White House chamber staff. It’s a public building and museum, so properly maintained by the General Services Administration and other agencies to that degree. The president can make use of the in-house service personnel his staff use (e.g. the White House barber). If the costs are not socialized over the staff (and the whole staff, hourly and salaried alike), they should be very few. Just some domestic cleaning, laundry, and culinary service (what you’d get if you were in an ‘indpendent living’ type old folks home).

  3. The egg of the cockatrice was planted in the draft. It made it past the ratifying conventions. It hatched with the Lincoln administration which destroyed two unions of constitutionally federated republics: the United States of America and the Confederate States of America and replaced them with a consolidated and centralized Hobbesian state.

  4. “and replaced them with a consolidated and centralized Hobbesian state.”

    Uh huh. The ratio of federal disbursements to domestic product in 1929 amounted to 4.4% of gross domestic product. That was divvied up as follows:

    26% Debt service and retirement
    18% Military
    17% Postal Service
    10% Treasury department operating budget
    9% Veterans’ benefits
    1.5% Diplomatic corps / Legislature staff / White House staff / DC
    17,5% miscellaneous

    The military was consuming 1% of gross domestic product. You might find an occidental power more parsimonious with its military in 1929. Or you might not. Veterans’ benefits are downstream of military expenditure and every other item on the list bar ‘miscellaneous’ was an established function of the federal government in the ante-bellum period and, with the conceivable exception of the postal service, was an inherently federal function . Your ‘leviathan state’ was consuming all of 0.75% of gross domestic product.

  5. While the post-Civil war federal government was hardly Leviathan, it was more “consolidated and centralized” than before the war, even if only various applications of the 14th amendment are considered. One also must acknowledge that the power assumed by the federal government during the war was never completely given up afterwards (it never is.). W. Wilson may have given the ball a good kick, but it had already been set in motion by Lincoln.

  6. While the post-Civil war federal government was hardly Leviathan, it was more “consolidated and centralized” than before the war, even if only various applications of the 14th amendment are considered.

    The only consequential portions of the 14th Amendment between 1868 and 1925 were the extension of citizenship to freedmen and the cancellation of Southern war debts (which denied any bonus to Confederate veterans). The lallapalooza of 14th Amendment faux-jurisprudence is a phenomenon of the last 70 years.

    And, no, not a whole lot changed between 1865 and 1929. Some new regulatory agencies were set up. Regulatory agencies do not consume much cash. Its not surprising there were these agencies – the decline in transportation costs meant more long-distance commerce and technological developments meant more consumer products with esoteric ingredients and the market structure of heavy industry tends toward oligopoly.

    The tricorn hat wing of American conservatism despises Wilson because he critiqued the Founders. James Madison wasn’t Jesus Christ and the problem with the Federal Trade Commission was that the enabling legislation was too vague, not that it was a manifestation of a Hobbesian order. Some people need to get a grip.

  7. “Regulatory agencies do not consume much cash. Its not surprising there were these agencies – the decline in transportation costs meant more long-distance commerce and technological developments meant more consumer products with esoteric ingredients and the market structure of heavy industry tends toward oligopoly.”

    Well, yeah, but the agencies in question don’t necessarily have to be “expensive” at start-up to evince a growth in government size and scope. Bureaucracies seldom begin life as behemoths.

    And it would seem that if there were a tendency towards oligopoly, there would be a concomitant tendency towards both plutocracy and further regulation — increased bureaucracy, in other words. As the corporations got larger and more powerful, regulation had to grow in kind, in a symbiotic relationship.

  8. Well, yeah, but the agencies in question don’t necessarily have to be “expensive” at start-up to evince a growth in government size and scope. Bureaucracies seldom begin life as behemoths.

    They don’t end as behemoths, either. The regulatory agencies with the largest budgets are the Environmental Protection Agency (which devotes 90% of it’s budget to site cleanups and grants) and the Federal Communications Commission, which devotes 80% of its budget to telecom subsidies. The largest agency budget devoted to crafting regulations, enforcing regulations, and engaging in research in support of regulation would be that of the Food and Drug Administration which spends north of $4 billion. Mid-card agencies devoted to patronage or service distribution (e.g. the Forest Service or the National Science Foundation) spend more. FDA is dwarfed by some agencies (e.g. the Food and Nutrition Service or the Veterans’ Health Administration).

    Oligopoly may be intensified by compliance costs, but that’s not why you have oligopoly in heavy industry.

  9. I was not implying that these bureaucracies were all behemoths, but rather that the ones which have gotten larger and more powerful over the decades did not start that way. That is why we speak of the “growth” of bureaucracy — more often than not it develops rather than appears suddenly.

    Also, that the VHA is much larger than the FDA doesn’t negate the fact that the latter has more direct bearing than the former on the lives of most Americans. The scope of power of an agency is not necessarily dependent on its budget alone.

  10. Also, that the VHA is much larger than the FDA doesn’t negate the fact that the latter has more direct bearing than the former on the lives of most Americans.

    The FDA has bearing on the life of people in the business of manufacturing or trading in pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, and processed foods. This has some knock-on effects on daily life re the availability of certain consumer products. I think you’re going to notice that less than you do disabilities derived from military service.

    but rather that the ones which have gotten larger and more powerful over the decades did not start that way.

    An agency at point in time x+2 tends to employ more people than it did the year after it was founded. That’s a rather jejune point.

  11. “An agency at point in time x+2 tends to employ more people than it did the year after it was founded. That’s a rather jejune point.”

    Which is precisely I added a second qualifying sentence.

    It is of the nature of bureaucracies to grow. Some grow faster than others. But mere size in terms of spending does not solely determine their power. You seem to want to reduce government power to purely fiscal considerations.

  12. You seem to want to reduce government power to purely fiscal considerations.

    No, you elect to interpret my remarks that way for effect.

    Populations grow, the volume of trade grows, the volume of long distance trade grows, and the supervisory agencies grow with it. You’re not going to inspect the meat processed in this country with 1906 staffing levels.

    We got into this discussion because a previous commenter confuses wordplay (“leviathan state”) for history or sociology. We have remained in this discussion because you profess to fancy the federal inspectorates supervising points-of-entry, banks, the grain and meat trade, the pharmaceutical trade, the cosmetics trade, food additives, tariff schedules, futures markets, and broadcasting spectra manifest Woodrow Wilson’s nefariousness rather than asking yourself what injury they’ve done anyone and why there might have been an impetus to establish such agencies in 1910 and not in 1840.

    And, of course, the federal government wasn’t allocating much in the way of domestic resources in 1929, the florid nonsense of neo-Confederates notwithstanding, and the bulk of it’s allocations concerned what were established functions in the ante-bellum era.

  13. “you elect to interpret my remarks that way for effect.”

    I’ve found it difficult over the years to discuss things of this sort intelligently with people who claim, whether implicitly or explicitly, the ability to read their interlocutors’ minds. It is a species of bad faith arguing, and I won’t enter into it.

    The simple point is as follows: modern governments, with their attendant agencies and bureaucracies, tend to grow during wartime, and also as a result of the growth of large corporations, which need to be regulated. The Civil War and its outfall reflected both of these elements of government growth, which is what is meant by an increase in its size and scope.

    Here endeth the lesson.

  14. I’ve found it difficult over the years to discuss things of this sort intelligently with people who claim, whether implicitly or explicitly, the ability to read their interlocutors’ minds. It is a species of bad faith arguing, and I won’t enter into it.

    I’m not reading your mind. I’m reading your words and remarking your poor performance at understanding my words, too poor to attribute it to error. If your words have no relationship to your actual thinking, why produce them?

    The simple point is

    As stated and defended by you, there are no empirical tests of your simple point which can verify or refute it. Neither institutional budgets, nor the ratio of budgets to production or income, nor the ratio of budgets to populations are regarded as valid indicators to you nor are you at all willing to state whatever could be valid indicators or even give an example of the Federal Trade Commission causing public grief.

    Here’s a suggestion: ask yourself why you keep making this ‘simple point’ about an imminent and observable phenomenon when you cannot define or measure it or even discuss it beyond reciting from some libertarian catechism.

  15. News flash: not everyone who believes that the Federal government grew in
    size and scope during the Civil War era is a libertarian. I certainly am not one — far from it, actually.

    Of course you know that some “liberals” recognize this growth and actually praise it, right? So some conservatives see it and bewail it, while some liberals see it and are happy about it.

    Fairly interesting responses to something that didn’t happen.

  16. You said,

    The Civil War and its outfall reflected both of these elements of government growth, which is what is meant by an increase in its size and scope.

    There is not one notable regulatory agency erected during the period between 1865 and 1929 that saw the light of day within 20 years of the end of the Civil War. The first was the Interstate Commerce Commission in 1887, and it’s foundation had nothing to do with the Civil War and a good deal to do with conflicts between agricultural and rail interests. As for the detritus of World War I, the wartime apparatus and it’s auxiliaries had been dismantled by 1922 and military spending returned to 1% of domestic product. The notable regulatory agencies erected between 1918 and 1929 were the ancestor of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission and the ancestor of the Federal Communications Commission. The latter’s business was allocating broadcasting spectra, something made necessary by technological developments. There was no commercial radio broadcasting prior to 1921.

  17. “its foundation had nothing to do with the Civil War and a good deal to do with conflicts between agricultural and rail interests.”

    And the growth of the rail interests had nothing to do with the CW and its aftermath?

    Sigh. Never mind.

  18. And the growth of the rail interests had nothing to do with the CW and its aftermath?

    What, it’s your contention there was no rail development in countries which did not have a civil war in that era? Or that people would have had no use for rail services absent a civil war?

  19. Ladies, Gentlemen and Marmots,

    Can we not all agree that the Anti-Federalists were mostly right? That the government which Madison and Hamilton promised us is not the one we have? That each generation of Americans has lived under a federal government which is larger and with powers more centralized, than the one before it? And further that this is so regardless of whether the people voted for it to be that way or not?

    Friends we cannot hope to reverse what happened to us unless we understand how it happened to us, and where the protections of the constitution fell short of their intent. There are thirteen doorways through which government power is consolidated and Front Porch Republics are lost. Fail to shut any of them, and and government will wind up with more and more power drawn to the center and away from the heartland. Those thirteen doorways, and what must be done to keep them shut, are discussed in this book, and if the six dollars for the e-version is an obstacle for you, be pleased to email and ask for a complimentary e-copy. For member of this distinguished blog only.

  20. Can we not all agree that the Anti-Federalists were mostly right? T

    No, their concerns were entirely topical.

  21. Sure, if the topic is human nature. I still think its a relevant topic. If you mean they were only concerned about immediate events I cannot disagree more. They used current events to demonstrate timeless principles about human nature and government. Don’t confuse the vehicle they used, that day’s headlines, with the underlying principles they were using those headlines to demonstrate.

    Without the AF’s we’d have never even gotten the Bill of Rights, which slowed the leviathan state down a bit. Or do you think that we no longer have need of a Bill of Rights? Of course their concerns were topical. Topics such as: Freedom of Religion and the Press; Freedom of speech. Freedom to keep and bear arms, and from unreasonable searches and seizures. Habeus Corpus and trial by jury.

    I must confess I have concern over those same topics.

  22. Sure, if the topic is human nature. I

    No, that’s not the topic, Mark. The topic was and is discrete problems of political architecture.

    Without the AF’s we’d have never even gotten the Bill of Rights, which slowed the leviathan state down a bit.

    Neither you nor the two other peacocks posting here have bothered to define the ‘leviathan’ state, nor do I think you can.

  23. If you think problems of political architecture are discrete from, or even primarily driven by, problems of human nature then suggest you re-read the Federalist #51. I agree with what Madison was getting at in that work- the seminal problem of political architecture is how to build a government for men, rather than angels, and yet run by men rather than angels.

    As regards to the leviathan state, I define it (and I think it likely the other two gentlemen will as well) as a state with the powers which Thomas Hobbes argued that a state should have in his classic work by that name.

  24. If you think problems of political architecture are discrete from, or even primarily driven by, problems of human nature then suggest you re-read the Federalist #51.

    Problems of human nature are comparatively stratospheric. That’s not what you’re addressing when you concern yourself with questions of political architecture. The anti-federalists were offering complaints about one particular plan. They’re not going to be much help in assessing contemporary problems.

  25. As regards to the leviathan state, I define it (and I think it likely the other two gentlemen will as well) as a state with the powers which Thomas Hobbes argued that a state should have in his classic work by that name.

    Yeah, well that’s irrelevant to contemporary problems. People talk florid rot because they fancy it makes them seem profound. It’s still just rot.

  26. Amazing to hear you dismiss, with no evidence offered to support your bald and confident assertions, the voices of the past in a tone of such confident finality. Especially on a forum which uses a lot of space to remember even obscure examples of such men.

    As this article points out, only the anti-federalists could see an LBJ or George W. Bush as President and that is why they argued for a weaker Presidency. They were not arguing against a strong Executive because they did not like George Washington, but rather who may follow him. The post itself shows that your judgement of the Anti-Federalists are way off. They were not addressing the problems of the day only, but also those which might arise in the future by introducing a structure of government by which would centralize power over time.

    Beyond that example, the Anti-Federalist papers are full of titles that reflect today’s troubles and those which reasonable minds might think will be tomorrow’s troubles, not merely yesterdays. I invite any fair-minded reader to take a peak and see what I mean http://thefederalistpapers.org/anti-federalist-papers

    I am a big believer in listening to those whom history has proven to be correct, standing on their shoulders, and seeing farther from there. That is what my book is about. Everything I see in your writing indicates that you are a person who deeply discounts the relevancy of opinions of those in previous ages in favor of the belief that most wisdom is contained in our own generation. I hope this impression is a mistaken one, for those who cling to such arrogance are condemned to suffer the mistakes of the past over and over again.

  27. Yeah, well that’s irrelevant to contemporary problems.

    But the state Hobbes argued for is very near to the state we now have. There are only a few more pieces to the puzzle for the centralizers to put in place- such as more direct state control over religion. The term well-describes the contemporary situation, and therefore is well-suited to contemporary problems. Your hand-waiving dismissal of the term is another data point which makes me question your desire to learn from the lessons of the past – at least lessons which show that our present vast central state to have been a mistake.

    The government Hobbes advocated with the term is very much like that which we now have, I merely used his same term as one of derision because the results of his big ideas have not been so wonderful as he imagined.

  28. Amazing to hear you dismiss, with no evidence offered to support your bald and confident assertions, the voices of the past in a tone of such confident finality.

    The thesis is that contemporary political problems arise from a failure to adhere to John Dickinson’s most excellent plan of government, as attested to by Patrick Henry. It’s a frivolous thesis.

    But the state Hobbes argued for is very near to the state we now have. T

    Only in the space between your two ears, Mark. The rest of us live out here.

  29. One wonders how large, powerful, and intrusive a government would have to get before Mr. Deco would agree that it could be referred to it as “Leviathan.”

  30. Why, the very fact that we can type the words “leviathan” and “government” in the same sentence without the NSA auto-electrocuting us through our government-controlled keyboards is proof enough that we are alarmists with no reasonable grounds for concern!

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