No matter what

A road sign with the word Choose and arrows pointing left and right

In America, we like to choose sides. We make a decision and then stick to it. Nothing you can say or do will convince your buddy to change his ways.

Take for example the Cola Wars. There’s been a rivalry between the drinkers of Coke and Pepsi for generations, with both sides insisting that their favored beverage is better. While I’m sure you know somebody who has no preference, most of the people in my circles are dedicated to one brand over the other. One side insists that Coke is the only soda worth drinking, while the other will select water rather than accept a cola other than Pepsi.

It’s the same thing with sports teams. Or Ford vs Chevy. Or those old commercials with a bunch of guys yelling “Tastes great!” and “Less filling!”

In most cases it’s all in good fun. But often we invest so deeply in our devotion toward one side over the other that it’s no longer trivial. Eventually, these disputes become much more heated when the loyalists on the two sides face off on a political issue.

The Truth, the Whole Truth

If you’ve been following this column for any period of time, you know that I have no patience for liars. If your argument is built upon a foundation of falsehoods, I want no part of it. I wouldn’t want to stake my reputation on something I know not to be true, and I can’t conjure up the desire to have a conversation with someone who deals with fantasy rather than facts.

We have a world of knowledge at our fingertips. Our computers and smartphones can lead us to the answers to just about any question imaginable. But we have to be willing to use discernment. We have to take precautions, to make sure that what we hear and what we read is honest and trustworthy.

Sometimes the lies are obvious. Others, though, are partially shadowed. Whether these are half-truths or unspoken realities, we can count them as lies because of how they’re presented. We may be told a less than complete story or, quite often, we just don’t listen well enough. We hear the things we want, and ignore the rest.

If you always believe what you’re told without doing a bit of investigating on your own, you’re taking a big risk. You could end up putting your trust in a person or an ideal only to be greatly disappointed in the long run.

Take for example the woman in Indiana who counts herself as a supporter of President Trump. She voted for him because, among various reasons, she liked his tough stance on undocumented immigrants. But she didn’t think that her husband, who came to the States illegally from Mexico nearly twenty years ago, would be deported. She heard Trump talk about kicking out criminals, but never suspected he was talking about people like her husband. And yet, he was detained, then sent to Mexico on a one-way trip.

Or the mother in Tennessee who told the Washington Post that it was tax credits from Trump that made her unemployed son’s health insurance premiums drop by nearly 85 percent. In reality, those savings were the result of subsidies from the Affordable Care Act, which is still the law. Ironically, repeal of the ACA – a key talking point of Trump’s campaign – will cause those subsidies to end, thus causing her son’s insurance premiums to skyrocket.

In both cases, and a multitude of others, overwhelming loyalty prevented these people from seeing and understanding basic truths.

It becomes part of you

Dan Pfeiffer, who served as Senior Advisor to President Obama, recently said, “Being for Trump becomes part of someone’s identity.” While he is clearly partisan, Pfeiffer’s words ring true. Trump himself made the claim that he could shoot someone and not lose support. Based on the enthusiastic attendees at Trump’s rallies, he’s right. There are a lot of people who are willing to accept anything Trump says or does and remain on his side.

It didn’t matter to them when Trump reversed his campaign promise to label China a “currency manipulator”. They seem okay now that Trump has changed positions on NAFTA and NATO, and that he has flip-flopped on several health care issues. They stand by their votes for him, and they eagerly sign up for tickets to his rallies where they laugh at his jokes and feel good about the choice they made.

They refuse to be convinced otherwise, perhaps because they just don’t want to admit that they fell for a con.

I wonder what it will take, what abuse of power or act of greed, before they see clearly.

(Originally published in the Morrisons Cove Herald May 4, 2017.)

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I hate myself for loving news

tv news

As far back in time as I can remember, I’ve been incredibly curious. From exploring the wilderness of my back yard to watching rockets launch men into space on a small black & white television screen, I was infatuated. Given the opportunity to watch the evening newscasts with my parents, I became aware at a very young age of the good and bad of the world. I watched Walter Cronkite and Huntley & Brinkley as they explained about the tragedies of our fallen soldiers in a war halfway around the globe and the deaths of a couple men brought down by assassin’s bullets. Presidents gave speeches and reporters told me about other men who wanted to get elected. I watched, listened, and learned… and wanted more. Fortunately, I had plenty to keep me interested.

Not only did I pay attention to what I watched and heard, but I started digging deeper into the news of the day. With the help of radio, TV, newspapers, magazines, and several well-worn volumes of my trusty encyclopedia, I threw myself head first into what has become a lifelong passion for politics and the people who seek elected office. Since my coming of age was during the Nixon years, I had plenty of fresh material. As I was learning about how our government is structured and the duties of various offices, I was also watching a presidency collapsing, brought down from within.

President Nixon was his own worst enemy, causing his own fall from grace because of a pattern of illegal activity and efforts to keep the wrongdoings secret. But thanks to a few determined members of the news media — many of whom were subjected to not so subtle threats by Nixon and his team — the lies and the crimes were uncovered.

I am a self-professed news junkie. More specifically, I am addicted to politics. I read a couple daily newspapers and a few of the weeklies. I watch a fair amount of politically-themed talk shows, and study many magazine articles. Nearly everyone I follow on Twitter is either a member of government or a reporter on the political beat. I’ll admit: sometimes it results in information overload, and I’ll need to turn away from it all to decompress. It isn’t long, of course, until I’ll back for more. I guess I crave the punishment. But, like I said, I’m very curious.

Today, we live in a 24/7 news cycle. Thanks to the internet, we have many more options to be informed about the people whom we have voted into positions of power, as well as the staff members they bring along for the ride. As I’ve written before, we have no excuse for not knowing what the politicians are saying and doing. But too many of us choose to be under-informed, relying on family members or Facebook friends to filter the news, rather than seeking out the facts for ourselves. Social media has its place in keeping us entertained, but it’s no substitute for factual reporting.

In these early days of the new administration — and in the campaign that led us here — we’ve seen members of the news media come under assault for nothing more than doing their jobs. Much like Nixon nearly a half century ago, President Trump is using the power of his position to attack reporters, commentators, and even entire news organizations. Trump and his staff regularly label any non-favorable reports as “fake news”, telling supporters that these media outlets are villains. The president even went so far as to declare on Twitter (and in various public appearances) that certain networks and newspapers were the “enemy of the American people”.

Now, it’s fine to have your own opinion. It’s perfectly okay to vent your feelings. But when the President of the United States points his finger and calls someone the enemy, that’s crossing a dangerous line. There are many unstable people in this country. What if one of them hears the president make such an inflammatory remark and decides to attack a reporter? Reporters have needed the assistance of police officers to escort them safely from the events they are covering. NBC’s Katy Tur even received Secret Service protection when she was singled out by then-candidate Donald Trump during a campaign rally.

And let me just say this: if President Obama had made that kind of threatening remark aimed at the news media, Republicans in Congress would have wasted no time in calling him anti-American for attacking the First Amendment. But I guess things are different now.

When it comes to the news, you don’t have to agree with everything you read or hear or watch. But at least you should respect the need for a free and accessible press. After all, our forefathers did.

(Originally published in the Morrisons Cove Herald March 2, 2017.)

I hear the train a-comin’

train track

Here we are, in the final stages of the aftermath of the 2016 election. The votes have been tallied, and the electors have made it official. As our nation’s founders wished, our country once again, for the 44th time in its history, finds itself in the midst of a peaceful transition of power from one leader to another. The future of the United States is now in the hands of a brash, boisterous man of huge ego. A man of questionable character and even more questionable ability. A man who puts on airs of being a leader but has a dubious track record when it comes to actually leading. And yet, like it or not, Donald Trump will be President of the United States of America.

You may like it. I do not.

However, there is only one chief executive position established by our Constitution. There can be only one president. And despite our concerns, regardless of our wishes otherwise, Donald Trump is that one president.

I will not be one of those detractors toying with the “He’s not MY president” mantra. Many foolish people have tossed that phrase about since Mr. Trump’s November victory, and each of them is acting just as ignorant of reality as those who have tried to deny President Obama his own rightful place of honor these past eight years. That silliness is disrespectful to the office and the wise individuals who forged this nation more than two centuries ago. So, yes, he will be known and referred to here as President Trump. I respect the office too much to say otherwise.

That is not to say, however, that I hold much respect for the man himself.

I’ve made it very clear in this column that I’m very distrustful of many elected officials. I’ve also made it very clear that I have not patience with dishonesty. But, as I’ve also written, they all lie. It’s up to us, the stakeholders of this nation, to keep them as honest as possible. We must hold them accountable for their actions, and use our powers — free speech, independent press, the ballot box — to either reward or punish them as we see fit.

But for us to do that requires knowledge. And a backbone. And common sense.

We need a good, strong news media to keep us informed of everything our politicians do, from the positive achievements to the clumsy missteps. We need to stand strong in support of those working in radio, television, newspapers, magazines… even those who tweet and those who blog. We may never see another Deep Throat, but if someone like that comes forward, America needs to know that there will be a modern version of Woodward and Bernstein ready to listen, to write, and to break the news to an otherwise unsuspecting public.

We cannot tolerate the bullying of the press we saw from Candidate Trump… a tactic that President-elect Trump has continued to employ. Sure, he may not like what they report, but he must stop attacking the messengers. And he absolutely must no longer encourage others to verbally and, in some cases, physically assault members of the press. A president must want to uphold the First Amendment. A dictator would want to destroy it.

Of course, I have little hope that Donald Trump will change his tone. Why should he? After all, he criticized Secretary Clinton for making speeches to Wall Street tycoons, but then he hired several of them to serve in his administration. He claimed that his opponents were dishonest, but refuses to release financial documents to prove that other nations can’t influence his decisions. He ran an anti-immigration campaign, but he and his family have a long history of hiring non-citizens. And there’s great concern over why Mr. Trump seems to have more faith in the Russian leader than in our own intelligence agencies.

It will take a lot to convince me that Donald Trump will stay true to the Constitution, that he will govern with our country’s best interests in mind, and that he will demonstrate the level of maturity and wisdom that best befits the person who sits in the Oval Office.

Right now, he’s still not much more than a petulant child, the playground bully who steals the ball and runs away. He’s the boy who would be king, but won’t take the time to learn how to do it right. Probably because he’s afraid to admit that he is in over his head.

But we have only one president and, for a while, he will be Donald Trump. And so, I will be watching him. Studying him. Challenging him. And so should you.

(Originally published in the Morrisons Cove Herald January 5, 2017.)

And the winner loses all

loser

Imagine you’re watching the Super Bowl. It’s the New England Patriots taking on the Dallas Cowboys. Although it’s an exciting game, it’s a bit one-sided. Dallas scores one touchdown in each of the first three quarters while limiting the Patriots to a single field goal in each stanza. At the end of three quarters, the Cowboys hold a 21-9 lead. The fourth quarter, however, is a different story. While the Cowboys’ offense seems to have run out of gas, Tom Brady is suddenly able to pick apart the Cowboys secondary, leading his Patriots down the field again and again. Final score: New England 37, Dallas 21. The Patriots are the champs of the NFL.

Well, not exactly.

You see, the league decided that the actual score isn’t the best way to decide the winner. Instead, the team that outscores the opponent in each quarter is awarded one gold star, and whoever racks up the most stars is declared the winner.  So, since the Cowboys managed to score more points in each of the first three quarters, Dallas has three gold stars and the Patriots, who dominated the fourth quarter, have just one. Despite the final score, under the established rules the Cowboys are declared the winning team.

That, my friends, is how we elect the President of the United States.

As I was preparing to submit this column to the editor, Sec. Clinton’s lead in the popular vote (the actual votes cast) was a bit more than 2.3 million. That’s roughly equivalent to the population – every man, woman, and child – living in the city of Houston, Texas. In other words, if we simply counted how many people voted for which candidate and used that method for selecting our nation’s chief executive, we would not have a President-elect Donald Trump. But Hillary Clinton’s votes were concentrated in a few states, while Trump was able to claim victory in more, though less-populated, states. And, by nature of the point system that is the Electoral College, Trump earned the win even though he was out-scored.

Of course, this isn’t the first time the top vote-getter failed to grab the brass ring. It was just 16 years ago that George W Bush received less votes than Al Gore. Bush’s advantage in the Electoral College, however, was the determining factor of his success. Three other presidential races also ended with the keys to the White House handed to the candidate who fell short in the vote tally: John Quincy Adams in 1824, Rutherford B Hayes in 1876, and Benjamin Harrison in 1888.

And now, barring a monumental recount that would flip the results in a handful of states — not likely — Donald Trump will take the oath of office next month.

As we prepare for our country’s first Reality Television President, we need to take a serious look at what to expect. Or rather, what not to expect.

First, there will be no wall on our southern border. Sure, Trump promised he’d build one. He bragged that it would be very tall and very beautiful… and that Mexico would pay for it. But in the first few days after the election, Trump was already backpedalling. Interviewed on “60 Minutes”, Trump admitted that the ‘wall’ will probably be more of a fence. Not exactly the impenetrable masterpiece his fans expected, is it?

Candidate Trump also pledged to “repeal and replace” Obamacare. President-elect Trump, on the other hand, told the Wall Street Journal that he likes several provisions of the Affordable Care Act, and is interested in leaving large parts of it in place.

When running his campaign, Trump led chants of “Drain the Swamp”, saying that he wanted to get the special interests out of government. But when you look at the people he’s likely to add to his administration, that’s just another broken promise. A Goldman Sachs banker with deep ties to Wall Street as Treasury Secretary? An Education Secretary who not only promotes for-profit corporate schools but also sits on the board of an organization — headed by Jeb Bush — that supports Common Core?

And while we’re on the subject of the Trump Cabinet, let’s not forget that he has considered naming Gen. David Petraeus to head the State Department. This is the guy who, while serving as CIA Director, shared classified information with his mistress.

But considering that Trump has spent more time on Twitter than he has on learning how to be president — avoiding important things like security briefings — it is clear that he lacks the desire to put in the hard work necessary for the job. I think that he also lacks the ability to learn, preferring instead to shove the hard stuff into somebody else’s hands.

Trump the candidate talked big. Trump the president has to live up to that talk. I don’t think he will, because I don’t think he can.

In a few weeks, he’ll have the chance to prove me wrong.

(Originally published in the Morrisons Cove Herald December 1, 2016.)

Lately it occurs to me…

kaleidoscope

…what a long strange trip it’s been.

One year, eight months, 3 days. That’s how long this presidential campaign has been. From the first candidate to officially announce his run for the office on March 5, 2015 — Republican Mark Everson, for what it’s worth, and you’re forgiven for not knowing his name — until Election Day on November 8, 2016… 614 days of what is undeniably the strangest trip to the White House this nation has ever witnessed.

I’ve written here before about the flaws of the two major party candidates and, I admit, I’ve spent a great deal of that time pointing out the wide range of negatives swirling around the Donald Trump campaign. Let’s be honest, Mr. Trump is deeply flawed on so many levels, most notably on matters tied to his personality. The fact that the media spotlight on Trump’s campaign has focused so much more on his antics — past and present — than on a more serious discussion of policy is a good explanation for the success of his campaign. Trump entered this race as an entertainer and treated every speech and debate as an episode of an unscripted reality TV show. We, the audience, watched and listened with amusement and disgust… and we never truly believed that he would take it this far.

Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight.com, a statistical genius with a highly successful track record in the realm of political predictions, admits now that he didn’t take Trump seriously from the beginning. Failure to do so caused Silver to ignore the very polls that he otherwise swears by and, as a result, now is hesitant to be as bold a predictor as he was in previous elections. But who can blame him? Never in our lifetimes — perhaps, never in American history? — has a presidential election boiled down to two candidates who are so incredibly disliked by such large shares of the population.

Hillary Clinton has run a much lower profile campaign, a strategy involving fewer public events than her opponent, but that hasn’t made her immune from trouble. In fact, choosing to spend less time in public view may have caused Sec. Clinton more woes, since it meant she gave herself less chances to counter bad publicity. Considering that she has been a non-stop target of an aggressive media since her husband’s first national campaign in 1992, you would think she would have developed a better plan. Time will tell if she has any regrets.

But this much is certain: no matter the results, this year’s Election Day will not signal an end to the hostilities. And I’m not talking about the harsh barbs traded back and forth between candidates.

Two weeks after all votes are cast and counted, Americans will sit down to Thanksgiving dinner tables that could turn into battlefields, with family members at odds over their political preferences. Wouldn’t it be nice if arguments at the holiday feast were limited to who gets to battle over the wishbone… or which giant balloon was the parade favorite? But not so likely this year, thanks to an election so polarizing that relatives have stopped talking to each other… that has turned Facebook into a war zone… that has even caused regular churchgoers to skip services in order to avoid people with opposing views.

I have used this space to bemoan the lack of civility in our society, brought on primarily by our political partialities. It doesn’t have to be like this.

In the Eighties, President Ronald Reagan and Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill had vastly different views on policy. But both men were smart enough to realize that they needed to find a pathway to agreement on enough issues to make our federal government work for all of its citizens. The two men would have regular, private lunches… and more than a few social drinks… and talk in a manner that was respectful and mature. They didn’t have to end up completely on the same page, but they knew that the country was better off with leaders who could work together.

Some will point to the lack of such private engagements between President Obama and Republicans in Congress. Yes, Obama isn’t prone to the same degree of socialization as Reagan and others who preceded him in office. That could be because, unlike many recent presidents, he had two young children living with him and chose to spend more free time with them. It could also be due to those Republicans not wishing to be on friendly terms as that would be frowned upon by their constituents and donors.     

Once thing I think is certain: this election is destined to result in even more disharmony, unless we the people choose to rise above our differences and act like adults once again.

(Originally published in the Morrisons Cove Herald November 3, 2016.)

The end is near

arguing beagles

It just so happens that I like happy endings. I like stories where good triumphs over evil, when the down-on-his-luck guy finally catches a break, and when star-crossed lovers beat the odds and live happily ever after. Okay, maybe that last one is too much of a stretch, ‘cause the one place you won’t find this guy is plopped down on the couch all wrapped up in some romantic comedy. But I do like to see when conflicts can be resolved and everyone is pleased by how everything turned out. In books and movies, that can happen. In the real world, it’s not that easy.

If there’s one thing I know about myself, it’s this: I’m not an optimist. That doesn’t mean that I’m always looking for something bad to happen. But after you’ve spent a few years dealing with all the highs and lows that life can send your way, you tend to get a feeling for how the story is going to end. And this year, my friends, we’re caught up in a real page-turner.

This presidential election was destined to be like none before it. There was no doubt who was going to be the main contender among the Democrats. From the moment that Hillary Clinton lost to Barack Obama in 2008, it’s safe to say we all knew she was going to run again. And it was also clear that she would not have to face many competitors. This is due in part to the view from within the party that Clinton’s previous run gave her the advantage of already having built a national campaign, and that experience coupled with a solid network of endorsers and operatives meant that she would hit the ground running while any rivals would be starting from scratch. And so, despite a rather impressive challenge from Bernie Sanders, Sec. Clinton succeeded in becoming the first female presidential nominee of a major US political party.

For the Republicans, their nominee took a much different path. Sure, Donald Trump had plenty of name recognition, but he never bothered to form any real organization. Instead, Trump relied on a loosely concocted strategy of winning a popularity contest rather than gaining votes based on the usual method of establishing a meaningful stance on policy issues. True, Mr. Trump entered the race as one of a large crowd, but it’s not like most of his competition was all that formidable. Some were poorly funded. Others never seemed to be putting in much effort. (I’m looking at you, Jeb.)

And so, here we are. The next president, the person who will hold the most important elected office in the world, will either be a woman with a very large unfavorability ranking… or a man with, coincidentally, a very large unfavorability ranking. No matter who wins, our nation’s next leader will be greatly disliked from day one. That’s unfortunate, but it could also be a great opportunity. Imagine if our next president takes the oath of office and immediately sets out to gain the trust of all Americans, even (and, for that matter, especially) those who voted for the other candidate. We could be in for a new era of healing and cooperation. But I just don’t see that happening, not for a good while. Like I said earlier, I’m not an optimist.

Never before in my lifetime has there been so much bitterness connected to a national election. We’ve allowed anger to overtake common sense. Family members can’t talk to each other without name-calling. Friends are distancing themselves from each other, all because of whose name they plan to select on the ballot.

Is this what we’ve become? A society that’s willing to throw out all the conventions of kindness and civility? And if it’s this bad now, how much worse will it be after the election?

We need to turn off talk radio and cable TV, and learn how to sit down and discuss our differences like reasonable adults. No name calling, no finger pointing, no threats. I’m not going to tell you that we all need to hold hands and say only nice things to each other. That’s not reality. But we need to get out of this rut we’re in.

The great cartoonist Walt Kelly once worked for Disney, helping to create such masterpieces as “Dumbo”, “Pinocchio”, and “Fantasia”… but he’s best known for his comic strip, “Pogo”. Kelly often used his drawings to comment on social issues, particularly politics, and in doing so condemned extremism on both sides. The most famous quote from his strip, “We have met the enemy and he is us,” can honestly be used to describe our current political climate.

I won’t say we’ve hit rock bottom, because that would suggest that things can’t get worse. Based on what I’ve seen over the past year, it probably will.

(Originally published in the Morrisons Cove Herald September 1, 2016.)

I hate labels

shirt label

Recently I purchased a few tee shirts. Nothing fancy, I just needed some new ones for casual wear this summer. They’re cheap and comfortable… but they’re also irritating. That’s because they all have a large white tag on the inside of the shirt, sewn into the seam that runs down the side. It’s not as soft as the shirt — it almost seems to be made of a blend of plastic and paper — and it’s positioned close to the hem, right near my waist. Because of where it’s located, the tag often causes the hem of the shirt to flip over, as if the whole point of its existence is for everyone to see it. Since the shirts have another tagless label inside the back of the collar with the size and washing instructions, I don’t see the point in having to add this extra annoyance.

I could always cut it off, but I know better. When you remove tags like that, there’s always that one heavy thread left behind, one that looks and feels like fishing line. (I swear, someone in that factory keeps a tackle box next to the sewing machine.) That one thread, while not visible most of the time, will feel like I’ve got a Ginsu steak knife poking me in the side. No thanks, the label stays put.

My guess is the same genius who put that label in my shirt had something to do with the design of my blue jeans. Why? Because there’s a tag in my jeans that is constantly peeking over my waistband. While this tag is soft and doesn’t cause any physical pain, it does lead to some embarrassment. I feel those judgmental glances from other shoppers as I walk down the aisles of the grocery store, so I reach down and try to discreetly tuck the tag back inside my waistband.

I could remove it,  but I have a sneaking suspicion that there’s that one razor sharp thread lurking nearby, ready to strike. Besides, this tag is marked with the jeans’ size, an important detail now that I’ve reached a point in my life where I have to have jeans in different sizes depending on whether I had dessert the day before. Nope, that label is going nowhere.

Sometimes they don’t have a purpose. Sometimes they hold vital information. So, like it or not, some labels just have to stick around.

But not all of them. There’s a few labels we could live without.

Take politics, for example. We apply labels to ourselves and each other all the time, and not often for useful, constructive reasons. I mean, what’s the benefit of calling someone a liberal or a conservative, as if that one word completely defines who we are and how we think and what we believe. We’re humans, fully capable of changing our minds, so who’s to say that we can be categorized with a simple one word description? Can we be thought of as a liberal on Monday and, depending on some random experience, suddenly be transformed into a conservative by Wednesday?

But, you say, people DO change their opinions about important topics, so why not give them the label that makes sense at the time? Again I say, because we are complex creatures. No one word can truly and accurately capture every thought, urge, or belief, so why bother?

It’s the same with those among us who call themselves Republicans or Democrats. Really, when it comes to the two major parties, there’s no point in saying that you “are” one or the other. Yes, you can tell people that you are a member of a party, but registering as one or the other should be seen as merely a step you take in order to vote… not as if you’re joining a special fraternity.

Remember, political ideologies change. It wasn’t that long ago that Democrats dominated the Southern states. In the days of desegregation and the Civil Rights Movement, it was primarily Southern Democrats who were in opposition. Decades earlier, the Ku Klux Klan tended to build its ranks with people who were more aligned with the Democratic party. And, after all, it was a Republican who signed the Emancipation Proclamation, encouraged to do so by liberal Northerners from his own party.

But that was then. Today, the South is overwhelmingly Republican, and not because all the Democrats moved away. Nope, it’s the same people with the same views. They just switched parties after a Democrat in the White House signed some documents and told them they had to start treating everybody as equals.

You know what’s funny? Those Southern Republicans like to say they are from the party of Lincoln, the same guy who freed the slaves. I doubt that Abe would recognize his party today.

I wonder what label Lincoln would give himself.

(Originally published in the Morrisons Cove Herald July 7, 2016.)