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Home Publications Blogs Beat the Press David Brooks' Primitive Defense of the Rich

David Brooks' Primitive Defense of the Rich

Friday, 17 January 2014 04:54

David Brooks is sweating hard trying to defend the one percent against the rest of the country and reality. His column today desperately warns readers:

"Some on the left have always tried to introduce a more class-conscious style of politics. These efforts never pan out. America has always done better, liberals have always done better, when we are all focused on opportunity and mobility, not inequality, on individual and family aspiration, not class-consciousness."

Funny, I thought Social Security, the Fair Labor Standards Act (i.e. the 40-hour workweek), the National Labor Relations Board, and other products of the New Deal were pretty big accomplishments. Much of this was done quite explicitly with a sense of class consciousness. These were all measures that were backed by mass movements that sought to ensure that working people got their share of the economic pie. Good thing we have David Brooks to tell us the opposite.

This is far from the only place where Brooks seems to be at odds with reality. Brooks condemns focusing on inequality because it leads to ineffective policies like raising the minimum wage. He then cites a study by Joseph J. Sabia and Richard V. Burkhauser telling readers:

"Consistent with some other studies, they find no evidence that such raises had any effect on the poverty rates.

"That’s because raises in the minimum wage are not targeted at the right people."

Actually the Sabia and Burkhauser study goes against the overwhelming majority of other studies on the topic as summarized in this analysis by University of Massachusetts professor Arin Dube.


Brooks also warns us:

"Third, the income inequality frame contributes to our tendency to simplify complex cultural, social, behavioral and economic problems into strictly economic problems (italics in original).


"There is a very strong correlation between single motherhood and low social mobility. There is a very strong correlation between high school dropout rates and low mobility. There is a strong correlation between the fraying of social fabric and low economic mobility. There is a strong correlation between de-industrialization and low social mobility."

Actually the problem of single motherhood is a problem of the United States providing inadequate support for child raising. Many other wealthy countries higher percentages of children born out of wedlock and the percentage of children in single parent families in the U.S. is not that much out of line with the average for other wealthy countries. However no other wealthy country has a poverty rate for children that is remotely comparable. Rather than fixing our system of social supports such as guaranteeing paid family leave and sick days and childcare, Brooks wants big government to tell people who they should live with and love.

It's not clear what social fabric Brooks thinks is fraying. The percentage of children in single-parent families has actually largely stabilized in the last three decades. The percentage of teen mothers is way down as is the crime rate. The high school graduation rate is way up. These changes have not been reflected in improved conditions for those at the bottom as minimum wage workers are more educated and experienced than ever.

As much we might want to take David Brooks' plea for considering complex cultural, social, and behavioral problems, de-industrialiation looks pretty much like a good old-fashioned economic problem. An over-valued dollar makes our goods uncompetitive internationally. If the currency is over-valued by 20 percent it is roughly equivalent to having a 20 percent tariff on all U.S. exports and a 20 percent subsidy on imports. In addition, if we have trade agreements that expose manufacturing workers to competition with low-paid workers in the developing world, while largely protecting highly paid professionals like doctors and lawyers, then we will have a serious problem of deindustrialization. That's pretty much economics 101, it's hard to see why any bigger explanation is needed on this one.

In fact Brooks tells us we have the story all wrong in seeing the dismal plight of the bulk of the population as being in any way linked to the riches of the one percent, who he politely hides behind the next four percent of the income distribution. Brooks tells us that the incredible wealth of the top one percent is a different story from the problems faced by the rest of us.

"At the top end, there is the growing wealth of the top five percent of workers. This is linked to things like perverse compensation schemes on Wall Street, assortative mating (highly educated people are more likely to marry each other and pass down their advantages to their children) and the superstar effect (in an Internet economy, a few superstars in each industry can reap global gains while the average performers cannot)."

First, it is just wrong to attribute the run away wealth and income at the top to five percent of the work force. Those in the 95th to 99th percentile are roughly getting their share of the growth of the economic pie. It is only the top one percent and primarily the top 0.1 percent who are really pulling away.

And Brooks has seriously misrepresented the causes of their runaway wealth. His "superstar" story depends largely on changing rules in ways that support this concentration of income and wealth. For example, we have had the lengthening and strengthening of copyright laws. Strict enforcement of these government granted monopolies is very important for concentrating wealth in the modern economy because the Internet would otherwise let everyone have copies of everything at no cost.

The same applies to patents. They have transferred vast sums to those at the top while making the rest of us pay much more for drugs and high tech products.

The top one percent have also thrived from a tax code that lets private equity fund managers get incredibly rich by finding clever ways to game it with large amounts of leverage. And we have a failed structure of corporate governance that allows CEOs to effectively pay off corporate directors to ensure their own high pay.

And, Brooks is just mistaken in his complaint that:

"If you have a primitive [the origin of the name-calling in the headline] zero-sum mentality then you assume growing affluence for the rich must somehow be causing the immobility of the poor, but, in reality, the two sets of problems are different, and it does no good to lump them together and call them 'inequality.'"

Fans of arithmetic everywhere know that if the rich get more, and the economy is not growing faster, then everyone else gets less. (It might be primitive, but it's true.) And the economy has been growing very slowly for the last thirteen years and actually pretty slowly for the whole period in which inequality has been increasing.

Finally, Brooks seriously misrepresents the possibilities for moving forward when he tells readers:

"Democrats often see low wages as both a human capital problem and a problem caused by unequal economic power. Republicans are more likely to see them just as a human capital problem. If we’re going to pass bipartisan legislation, we’re going to have to start with the human capital piece, where there is some agreement, not the class conflict piece, where there is none."

Actually, there are many honest conservatives who are opposed to the rent-seeking that allows so many of the one percent to get rich at the expense of the rest of us. Patent and copyright reform are great places to start, as are trade agreements that subject our doctors to the same sort of competition that our autoworkers and steelworkers have enjoyed for decades. And, we can get rid of some of the abuses in the tax code that exist to make the Mitt Romneys of the world rich. That's a great agenda that can draw bipartisan support and make a serious dent in inequality.


Correction: An earlier version said that many other wealthy countries have higher percentages of children in single parent families. The United States actually ranks near the top in this category, although not that far above the OECD average. It is right at the OECD average in the percentage of children born out of wedlock. 


Comments (35)Add Comment
Money = Political Power = More Money
written by Robert Salzberg, January 17, 2014 6:13
Even before the Supreme Court declared Corporations are People and Money is Speech, money invested in politics yielded great returns.

I challenge anyone to name a common product that isn't more expensive due to the way our governments have gamed the markets.
the problems of David Brooks
written by Rip Tore, January 17, 2014 6:16
Ya see, David Brooks thinks government shouldn't solve problems, it should solve problems. And by problems , we mean things that are the fault of all those damned takers and losers in the 48%, especially their moral faults such as, unlike Mr. Brooks, not being born with a silver spoon up their backside.

Mr. Brooks is like a parent who cooks dinner, sits his family of 5 at the table, and then eats 90% of the meal himself, because, dammit, he made that meal. He keeps Junior chained to the couch while berating him for not being a runner.
written by Squeezed Turnip, January 17, 2014 6:32
What a joke! From one side of his mouth, Brooks insists ön the Fischer Black view of human capital and from the other side he disavows the zero-sum game view that is the moral (and only consistent) foundation for that point of view.

written by kharris, January 17, 2014 8:06
One more item for your list of class-conscious movements that benefited workers. Unionization is entirely driven by the perception that workers share common interest that are threatened by capital holders. A high level of union participation was coincident with a high share of national income going to labor. The government fostered unionization, and the extension of union-won wages outside of unions, up till the Reagan years. Now, government mostly works (especially at the state level) against unionization.
written by kharris, January 17, 2014 8:11
Noah Smith has recently written an interesting bit on "tribal reality". Right-wing economic and social policies are, as much as anything, an expression of tribal reality, but less thoughtful middle-of-the-road thinkers (which means most of our non-nutty political and pundit classes) have been swayed by expressions of right-wing tribal reality. Brooks may be trying to slide a new bit of silliness from the right's batch to shibboleths into middle-think.
Now That's Primitive Creationism America: Monopoly IS Competition
written by Last Mover, January 17, 2014 8:27

You know the zombie lies on "free markets" have come full circle when monopoly power itself is held up bizarrely as "competition" itself.

It appeared again this week on NPR in regard to the recent court ruling that knocked down net neutrality on the internet. The economic predators have another green light to proceed conversion of an already grossly overpriced underbuilt internet service into a private toll road designed to collect even more monopoly economic rent with no added value.

On the Takeaway show by John Hockenberry was Susan Crawford pointing out a whopping 77% of American households now have only one choice for broadband internet service from the cable monopoly. Examples included Sweden with multiple providers of comparatively very high speeds and South Korea as a global model of efficiency via low cost and price.

And how does the opposition representing the cable monopoly respond? Remarkably Scott Cleland asserts (paraphrased) that Americans chose to underbuild the internet they paid for in response to "private market forces" compared to "socialist" countries with "regulators" who "suppress innovations" by (in effect) providing too much internet service.

What's the connection to David Brooks? This:
"If you have a primitive [the origin of the name-calling in the headline] zero-sum mentality then you assume growing affluence for the rich must somehow be causing the immobility of the poor, but, in reality, the two sets of problems are different, and it does no good to lump them together and call them'inequality.'"

Really? So essential services like internet and health care which are intentionally handed over to and monopolized by the private sector, provided through artificial shortages designed to drive prices through the roof at obscene levels compared to other developed countries ... have nothing to do with inequality?

Nothing to do with opportunity and mobility?

Nothing to do with obscene concentrations of income and wealth behind the economic and political powers that run the country?

Talk about "primitive" zero-sum tradeoffs. Why don't David Brooks and Scott Cleland just go on the road and preach creationist economics to the masses, holding up Econ 101 textbooks in their hands to be burned.

When will you stupid liberal Americans learn? The classic textbook portrayal of a monopoly - less output at a higher price - is a lie by atheist economists, because in America that is the competitive model and it takes nothing from you in zero-sum fashion.

It only provides opportunity. For anyone and everyone. It crowds out no one with zero-sum tradeoffs.

Go for it America. You too can be an Economic Rent Extractor. The pay is good and you don't have to produce a damn thing but propaganda that you can now afford to buy what you produce with no added value.
written by Alex Bollinger, January 17, 2014 8:39
I was going to mention the high school dropout thing, which only takes 5 seconds of googling to disprove because high school dropout rates have been decreasing for decades.

But the line that really shows he's on another planet is "our tendency to simplify complex cultural, social, behavioral and economic problems into strictly economic problems." No, the tendency runs the other way: people like stories with morals more than they like statistics and nuance.

Brooks would know this if he had any ability to observe human behavior.
US inequality pales in comparison to global inequality...., Low-rated comment [Show]
david brooks
written by jim gobeski, January 17, 2014 9:44
David Brooks is an arrogant example of illegitimate opinion based on intentional information distortion.
written by liberal, January 17, 2014 9:44
kharris wrote,
The government fostered unionization, and the extension of union-won wages outside of unions, up till the Reagan years.

Is that really true? I thought the beginning of the end of union power was Taft-Hartley.
written by liberal, January 17, 2014 9:50
pete wrote,
These arguments that we should take money from the .01% and give it to the top 5% of global incomes simply make no sense in a Rawlsian system, unless you tack on crass xenophobic nationalism.

Unfortunately for your views, Pete, we live in a world where the fundamental political unit is the nation. Thus, Rawlsian and other arguments should be primarily made in the national, not international context.

Is it entirely just? No. Is it the way the world works, and the way the world will continue to work, for the foreseeable future? Yes.

The fact is, crass nationalism aside, we are primarily bound by and create laws within a national space; and as such reciprocal rights and responsibilities are primarily co-extant within a national space.
written by liberal, January 17, 2014 10:00
pete wrote,
These arguments that we should take money from the .01% and give it to the top 5% of global incomes simply make no sense ...

Actually, the thing that makes no sense is the idea these arguments are about government taking money from the 0.01%, whereas in fact they're about giving less money (in the form of ill-gotten gains, aka economic rent (primarily through land, but also finance and other rent-generating assets), aka legalized theft) to the top 0.01%.

Though since you don't understand the concept of economic rent, you don't understand that, either.
written by TK421, January 17, 2014 10:09
Ladies and gentlemen, the president's favorite columnist.
written by JFB, January 17, 2014 10:35
Brooks goes off the rails right at the start when he describes inequality as an issue separating the very rich from the very poor, then spends the rest of the column making various points about the very poor and how it's all social fabric and so on.

Inequality between the middle class (or what used to be the middle class) and the tiny percentage of ultra rich is the actual issue affecting most of us, not some polarization into two small groups at the extremes. The division is between the top tiny percentile who have more wealth than all the rest of the population combined, middle class, working class, poor, you name it.

If you think about it, not once in the coming week, or ever, will there be someone sitting across from David Brooks on any of the TV appearances or interviews he does challenging him or pointing out this sleight of hand. So no wonder he knows he can use these tricks as he likes, as long as he avoids the "left wing" press and blogosphere, not only won't he suffer any consequences, he doesn't even have to be aware of any pushback.
written by Lee R, January 17, 2014 10:59
Other than being too lazy to do much actual research, too shallow in his analysis to see beyond the surface of the few sources he does read, and too unaware of his own bias toward the wealthy, highly educated, and powerful, David Brooks is just a wonderful columnist. Absolutely wonderful.
written by Bloix, January 17, 2014 11:00
I was just reading in Alan Blinder's book, When the Music Stopped, about how Merrill Lynch CEO Stan O'Neal walked away with a severance check for $160 million when he was fired after destroying the company in 2007. This was on top of ordinary pay of $90 million for 2006.

Stan O'Neal, who is on the CNBC list as one of the worst CEO's of all time, has a net worth now of what would you say? $500 million? More?

$500 million means that for the next century or more, no descendant of Stan O'Neal will ever have to work. It means that he and his family can buy congressmen, state pols, judges, and local officials, without noticing the cost. It means that they are perfectly positioned to continue to extract wealth from ordinary Americans for generations to come.

And there are thousands of Stan O'Neals, bigger ones and smaller ones, that have been created on Wall Street, in Silicon Valley, in the military contracting business, in pharmaceuticals - all of them sitting at the heads of newly minted aristocratic families who will spend their lives in private jets and on private island retreats when they are not meeting with their tax accountants on how to use the latest tax law revisions (enacted at the behest of their lobbyists) to preserve their wealth for future generations.

David Brooks works for these Stan O'Neals. As will most of the rest of us, the way things are going.
Shorter David Brooks
written by Alan in SF, January 17, 2014 11:58
Hey! Look over there!
written by Col Bat Guano, January 17, 2014 12:34
The beauty (for the 1%) of Brooks's solutions is that there is really no way for the government to influence them while it is relatively simple to do things like raise the minimum wage or construct a more equitable income tax structure or improve schools and health care. Trying to fix family structure or prevent young people from being forced into bad decisions are just not amenable to legislation. Brooks's response is basically "Let's do nothing because it's too hard."
written by PJR, January 17, 2014 12:59
"Those in the 95th to 99th percentile are roughly getting their share of the growth of the economic pie." First, on average, they have been getting considerably less than the productivity growth rate. Second, the productivity growth rate has been unimpressive at best. I think it is fair to say that only the top 1 percent has gained from post-1980 economic policies.
written by skeptonomist, January 17, 2014 1:05
In the 20th century America did much better, being both more prosperous and less unequal, when tax rates were much more progressive than they have been for the last 30+ years. This is not just a matter of "abuses" or "loopholes", it's a matter of the way tax rates limit net compensation and affect incentives. The standard assumption, common even among "liberal" economists, that socially-useful incentive is proportional to the amount of money available, just has no empirical foundation. If CEO's had to work 20 years to make a fortune instead of a year or two it would lead to different kinds of investment.
What's the problem?, Low-rated comment [Show]
Wrong on Copyrights, Low-rated comment [Show]
written by John Q, January 17, 2014 2:51
Once again, I ignored advice given here and elsewhere not to read Babbling Brooks, but I was curious. Would I encounter yet another pseudoscientific take on some obscure book or other?

What about all those types he has identified for us? Were the creedals still favoring transcendent order? Have the dispositionals remained Burkean (temperamental conservatives who prize epistemological modesty)? Has Adam Smith’s invisible hand been further impaired by Democrats? Were “lightly regulated” hedge funds still not doing so badly compared to “highly regulated” investment banks?

And above all, what were the “bobos” thinking these days at the non-existent Applebee’s salad bar?

I was not disappointed. Today America’s foremost sociocraptologist favored us with a column devoted entirely to economics. By lumping together those in the top 5% of annual income, he managed to ignore the unprecedented income gains of the top 0.01% over the last three decades. He called his virtually meaningless segment “the top five percent of workers,” as if those who control our plutocracy somehow work for a living.

Then he confused cause with effect by listing “breakdown in family structures” as a reason why some are at the ”bottom end.” He also claimed “growing affluence for the rich,” and “immobility of the poor” are separate problems, and for a finale, he failed to distinguish unemployment from poverty to assure us that “raising the minimum wage may not be an effective way to help those least well off.”

Those who can easily afford an American decline and fall have lots of sock puppets in the media, but Brooks is unique in his flimsy attempts to justify the depths to which the bought-off Republican Party has sunk in recent years.
written by Jay, January 17, 2014 5:47
All rich people are smart
Smart people are moral
Therefore, rich people are moral

The premises are dubious and the conclusion is suspect but this is our conversation about inequality. We have turned a simple conversation about greed into prosperity gospel.
The NYT's picks of the comments
written by ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®©, January 17, 2014 8:43
are amusing. I wonder if David Brooks picked them?
short memory
written by Chris G, January 18, 2014 7:47
> Funny, I thought Social Security, the Fair Labor Standards Act (i.e. the 40-hour workweek), the National Labor Relations Board, and other products of the New Deal were pretty big accomplishments.

Yeah, the New Deal. What about that? They didn't discuss it in any of the history classes Ol' Dave took?
written by Chris G, January 18, 2014 8:17
> The NYT's picks of the comments are amusing. I wonder if David Brooks picked them?

Nah. Doing it himself would be unethical and demonstrate a lack of humility (http://nymag.com/daily/intelli...-yale.html). He slipped Douthat $20.
Perhaps Brooks is correct on one thing, income inequality should not be the sole focus
written by John Wright, January 18, 2014 9:23
By focusing on income inequality alone, much of the difference in lifestyles in America is not captured.

If someone has a job, with benefits, a convenient commute, lives in a safe neighborhood, works in a low stress and climate controlled environment than I view this individual as far better off than someone else making the SAME wage rate but with no benefits, has a long commute, lives in an unsafe neighborhood and works in an high stress and unheated/non-airconditioned environment.

The focus on simple nominal income understates the lifestyle inequality that exists in America.

As I've recommended before, if one feels a need for an antidote to a New York Times columnist's op-ed, select the "Readers Picks" in the comment sections.

The top readers' pick, with 1244 recommends, came from Gemli of Boston, and closes with:

"I was amazed to learn that paying people starvation wages does not make them poor. If that's true, let's LOWER the minimum wage. Poverty will not increase, and the wealthy will be rewarded with even more surplus
wealth. Until Brooks cleared things up, I though poverty caused the fraying of the social fabric, low economic mobility and an endless cycle of despair. Who knew it worked the other way around?"

"We especially don't want to polarize the debate by arguing on behalf of the poor. That just makes conservatives unhappy, and God knows we don't want to do that."

That the writings of David Brooks and Tom Friedman are featured in the New York Times fits well with Noam Chomsky's and Edward Herman's "Manufacturing Consent" function of the US Media.

And the Times is making this work, their op-ed columnists appease the well off and the Times readers need to pay $15 every four weeks to read on-line and comment.

Win-Win for the Times.
David Brooks Defense of the Rich
written by Ron Reading, January 18, 2014 11:01
I agree with most of your analysis. However, I think you have given short shrift to the cultural/social problems that exist today. Globalization and the reduced power of unions in the private sector have eliminated many low skill, high paying, jobs that used to exist in large numbers in such industries as automobiles and steel. You may not like Charles Murray,but in his book, Coming Apart, he does a very good job of documenting the social problems that have arisen in our post-industrial society over the past fifty years. Mr. Murray documents a major reason for the explosion of single mothers among what used to be called the blue collar demographic. It is a lack of suitable male partners who can be contributing members of a stable and economically self-sufficient family. Most single mothers are going to raise children under poor economic circumstances creating a self-perpetuating underclass. This is a social problem created by the force of unrelenting economic reality. In order to break this cycle we need more than just a higher minimum wage (which I support) and more generous government subsidies for single parent families. We need to address the widespread problem of young males who are not able to successfully participate in the modern economy. Currently the focus is on increasing the number of college graduates. This is fine for some, but many young men are just not academically oriented. We need to significantly ramp up the teaching of skills of non-academically oriented young men beginning in high school for jobs that the economy needs that pay good wages. Until we more broadly and systematically provide pathways for non-academically oriented young men to obtain skills that will enable them to earn a decent living, we will continue to perpetuate a permanent underclass. Increasing the number of economically attractive young men will increase the percentage of two parent families among "blue collar" workers which in and of itself will put these families on a more positive trajectory. The statistics are blindingly clear. The overwhelming majority of families with two parents who are both college graduates are doing quite well. They earn a decent income and by and large provide a stable home for their children to grow up in. That have "Middle Class" values. They work hard, live within their means and provide a positive model for their children. They amass substantial "Cultural Capital" which they pass on to their children by example. If we can get non-academically oriented young men trained and positioned to become economically successful, they will become attractive mates and along with their wives/partners will also develop "Middle Class" values, build "Cultural Capital" which they too will pass along to their children, and break this cycle of being stuck in an underclass with no hope of escape.
written by Chuck Elsesser, January 18, 2014 4:17
It was clearly not a coincidence that the same copy of the Times also had an in-depth article about the corporate attacks on worker centers and other low wage worker organizing efforts -- combine that with Brooks'attempt to "complexify" the minimum wage issue. They must be feeling the heat.
written by Mason, January 18, 2014 9:03
"First, it is just wrong to attribute the run away wealth and income at the top to five percent of the work force. Those in the 95th to 99th percentile are roughly getting their share of the growth of the economic pie. It is only the top one percent and primarily the top 0.1 percent who are really pulling away."

Yes, and by the same token you shouldn't constantly lump lawyers, dentists, and other educated professionals with the super-rich in claiming their protection from international competition is a driving force behind inequality. Like a Brooks column this just provides cover for the plutocrats (
written by Mason, January 18, 2014 9:13
"First, it is just wrong to attribute the run away wealth and income at the top to five percent of the work force. Those in the 95th to 99th percentile are roughly getting their share of the growth of the economic pie. It is only the top one percent and primarily the top 0.1 percent who are really pulling away."

In a different post today you mentioned "braindead" liberal environmentalists. Another group of braindead liberals are those who sat out Occupy Wall Street but have the nerve to whine about the "privilege" of the regular middle class or upper middle class Americans, most of whom work hard and play by the rules, have not fully shared in their productive contribution to the economy, and also struggle with mortgage and student loan debts. Like Brooks they're apologists for Davos Man who deserve our contempt.
When did a plutocracy ever lack courtiers?
written by AlanDownunder, January 18, 2014 9:43
And when did a mass circulation newspaper ever lack token balance?

That was not a rhetorical question. It has an answer. Not until 35 years into our current plutocracy revival did a mass circulation US newspaper carry continuous warnings of the revival underway.

Mass circulation US press does not need regular Brooks columns that are further right than right in order to achieve balance.
Loser Liberalism is no subsitute for equal protection under the law.
written by Perplexed, January 19, 2014 1:54
-"Funny, I thought Social Security, the Fair Labor Standards Act (i.e. the 40-hour workweek), the National Labor Relations Board, and other products of the New Deal were pretty big accomplishments. Much of this was done quite explicitly with a sense of class consciousness."

But of course no one thought to contest the 1914 Clayton Act which legislated in unequal protections for laborers thus preventing them from being able to pool their risks of being unemployed and insuring that they could be coerced by employers and trained to behave accordingly. If laborers (the 95%), were actually protected from anti-trust like every other product and service, there might be no need for "Loser Liberalism" discussions about the "plight" of the unemployed as they would actually have access to their rights of equal protection under the law that are supposedly "guaranteed" to them under the U.S. Constitution.
written by peasant, January 25, 2014 10:53

I've never understood how david brooks has retained his standing at a newspaper so many good writers and thinkers compete to write for. I've always thought he was a dilettante.

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About Beat the Press

Dean Baker is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. He is the author of several books, his latest being The End of Loser Liberalism: Making Markets Progressive. Read more about Dean.