Wonkbook: Obama’s big economic speech will leave out his biggest economic decision

July 24, 2013

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(Photo by Larry Downing /Reuters)
(Photo by Larry Downing /Reuters)

At 12:55 p.m. today, President Obama is scheduled to deliver his much-hyped speech articulating his long-term vision for the economy. Five minutes after the speech, GOP leaders are scheduled to send out press releases decrying the speech as more of the same old big-government tax-and-spend talk.

Sigh. This Town.

What's interesting, though, is that the biggest economic decision Obama is likely to make in his second term will almost certainly be left out of the speech. Obama will talk about all kinds of things that Republicans in Congress almost certainly won't let him do, but he won't talk about the one big thing they will let him do, and that will have profound effects on the path of the economy even after he leaves office. I'm talking, of course, about naming the next chair of the Federal Reserve -- a decision that House Republicans (and, for that matter, House Democrats) don't even have a role in.

It's no surprise that monetary policy will be left out of Obama's speech. Ever since President Richard Nixon bullied the Fed into helping with his reelection campaign, White Houses have been skittish about talking monetary policy, as even discussing the issue is seen as coming troublingly close to compromising the Fed's independence.

And yet the decision will happen, and soon. On Tuesday, I reported that the White House is leaning toward Larry Summers. It's not a sure thing, by any means, but it's where the process seems to be headed right now.

The chair of the Federal Reserve is arguably the most important economic policymaker in the world. He or she is certainly the most important economic policymaker during times of divided government, when the president can't get much done. And the position is even more powerful now than it was a few years ago, as the experience of the financial crisis and then the regulatory overhaul in Dodd-Frank gave the chair of the Federal Reserve vastly more power to regulate financial markets, housing markets, and much else. It's not just interest rates anymore.

Moreover, Fed chairs have, in recent decades, been long-lasting, Paul Volcker held the position for eight years. Alan Greenspan held it for 14 years. Barring an unexpected reappointment, Ben Bernanke will have spent eight years as Fed chair. Whomever Obama picks could be leading the Fed for a very long time, and so they could end up influencing policy over a vast range of issues long after Obama leaves office. What they do could will be the most lasting economic legacy of Obama's second term, even though it's unlikely to get much mention in today's speech.

Wonkbook's Number of the Day: 53 percent and 32 percent. Those are the percentages of Americans who said in a poll that they supported a piecemeal approach (taken by the House) versus a comprehensive one (taken by the Senate) for immigration reform.

Wonkbook's Quotation of the Day: Defense contractors “overhyped the immediacy of the sequester impacts, and I think that blew some if not all of their credibility,” said Todd Harrison, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “And the truth is there are going to be impacts; they’re just not immediate.”

Wonkblog's Graphs of the Day: How rare are double- and triple-digit rates of inflation?

Wonkbook's Top 5 Stories: 1) immigration reform in the House; 2) a Summers Fed, maybe; 3) moderates flee Obamacare; 4) new fiscal crises in the waiting; and 5) nominations left to approve.

1) Top story: Is there hope for immigration reform in the House?

A profile of Rep. Bob Goodlatte -- House Judiciary Committee chairman is well versed in the immigration debate. "Goodlatte is the designated gatekeeper for much of the immigration-related legislation coursing through Congress, giving him the opportunity to exert great influence over what could be the country’s most expansive reform in a generation. He brings deep experience to the job, having worked for years as an immigration lawyer and helping people from more than 70 countries immigrate to the United States — legally. He has a rare, and more skeptical, view on the immigration debate roiling the nation." Jenna Johnson in The Washington Post.

...He's floating a pathway to legalization. "House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte recently threw a curveball into the immigration debate by floating what has been anathema to House Republicans — a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. The Virginia Republican’s idea: legalize the 11 million undocumented immigrants and allow them to apply for citizenship using ways that already exist — including marriage to a U.S. citizen or sponsorship by another relative or an employer...Goodlatte has said on multiple occasions that he does not support a “special” pathway to citizenship, meaning that he opposes a new legal category created especially for immigrants who came to the United States illegally." Seung Min Kim in Politico.

House approach to border control gains backers. "A bill that takes a different tack on beefing up border security by not committing billions of dollars up front is gaining bipartisan support in Congress. Lawmakers from both parties on Tuesday praised a bill approved by the House Homeland Security Committee more than two months ago. It would require the government to first develop a plan for gaining control of the Southern border within five years that would apprehend at least 90% of all illegal crossing attempts." Kristina Peterson in The Wall Street Journal.

The House has a DREAM, but it's different from yours. "Top House Republicans made clear Tuesday that they would pursue a different legalization track for undocumented immigrant children – a strategy that could infuriate Democrats and reform advocates who are calling for a broader approach. Those sentiments were outlined in a Tuesday hearing held specifically to examine the plight of children brought illegally into the United States by their parents...The broader Republican conference appears to be on board with a path to legal status for young immigrants." Seung Min Kim in Politico.

Long AWOL, Latino community finally reports for duty in immigration reform debate. "More than 5,000 Latinos from community groups came to the conference of NCLR, the nation’s largest Hispanic organization, which is also known as the National Council of La Raza. Facing fading momentum in Washington on immigration, the leaders said they were heading to the fight this fall with their rank and file intensely motivated and more united than ever." Julia Preston in The New York Times.

@blakehounshell: Obama team and Reid bashing Boehner on immigration probably a bad sign for comprehensive reform, no?

Poll: Immigration is a quandary for Republicans. "Majorities of Americans support the two main pillars of immigration reform — increasing border security and a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. But partisan, racial and ethnic divisions damp overall public support for a comprehensive reform package, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll...Half of all Americans — and 83 percent of Hispanics — say they would be disappointed if the House does not pass legislation instituting a path to citizenship. But Republican rank-and-file oppose such a provision, making it a central sticking point in GOP deliberations over the legislation." Jon Cohen and Dan Balz in The Washington Post.

The House will not pass the Senate immigration bill. Here’s why. "Americans actually like Boehner’s approach. The most illustrative number in the whole poll: When asked whether they want the House to vote on the Senate bill or break down the issue into individual pieces, just 32 percent choose the Senate bill and 53 percent choose the piecemeal approach." Aaron Blake in The Washington Post.

@bdomenech: It would be very interesting to replay this immigration fight with DeMint in the Senate, not at Heritage.

Immigration rhetoric ramps ups as White House shows its frustration with House GOP. "The White House lashed out at House Republican leaders over immigration Tuesday after months of treading gingerly, revealing a sense of growing frustration inside the Obama administration with the sluggish pace of the reform effort. The sudden change in tone represents a rhetorical escalation in the high-stakes immigration debate as the House deliberates on a series of small-scale proposals, eschewing the comprehensive approach adopted by the Senate and favored by the White House" David Nakamura and Jenna Johnson in The Washington Post.

Sen. Reid disses House approach to immigration reform. "Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid ruled out the House’s “bite-sized” approach to immigration reform and said the Senate will only consider a comprehensive package. Just as Speaker John Boehner has said the Senate’s bipartisan immigration bill will not come to the House floor, Reid said he won’t take a look at any piecemeal legislation that comes over from the House." Burgess Everett in Politico.

Music recommendations interlude: The Boxer Rebellion, "Diamonds," 2013.

Top op-eds

KLEIN: Nate Silver’s genius isn’t math. It’s journalism. "So if all Silver did was build a polling-aggregation model that could call the election correctly on Nov. 1, that wouldn’t be much of a trick. Anyone with access to the polls could’ve done that. But Silver had two other innovations, both of which are, I think, more important in explaining the appeal — and potential scalability — of his work. The first is that his model begins many, many months before the election, and long before the polls become particularly predictive or frequent...But if that early model didn’t work to predict the election, it served Silver’s other, and most important, journalistic strength: narrativizing the data...What Silver figured out how to make data-driven election journalism into a daily product that could satisfy political obsessives." Ezra Klein in The Washington Post.

SOLTAS: Can we move kids out of poverty? "The new research [David] Leonhardt draws on also has interesting answer -- and one that contradicts much prior research -- to a different question: Does moving to a better neighborhood make a difference for poor children? A number of earlier studies that came out of a public-policy experiment -- the "Moving to Opportunity" program run by the Department of Housing and Urban Development -- had said no. The new study says yes, moving might be able to help...If a child's chance at having a better life depends on where he or she is raised, then that reinvigorates the case for public policy to promote income mobility and equality of opportunity across generations." Evan Soltas in Bloomberg.

SWAGEL: Elizabeth Warren's student-loan-rate idea is bad. But her analogy isn't. "Banks provide collateral for their loans in the form of securities such as Treasury bonds, and the owners of banks must finance their activities in part with their own capital at risk. It is natural to view college students as solvent-but-illiquid to the extent that their education unleashes the higher future earnings with which to repay their loans. Students thus put up as collateral their own human capital: it is quite difficult to walk away from federal student loans, meaning that a college-age borrower’s future earnings effectively serve as the surety for repayment." Phillip Swagel in The New York Times.

BARTLETT: Inflationphobia. "I don’t expect all the people who filled The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page in 2008 and 2009 predicting an imminent rise in inflation to offer a mea culpa, but at some point I think the inflationphobes should at least stop saying that hyperinflation is right around the corner...Intellectually honest inflationphobes need to explain why they were wrong and stop crying wolf or else it will be reasonable to assume they are simply cranks and crackpots." Bruce Bartlett in The New York Times.

MILBANK: Obama's economic ideas are warmed-over. "[This] risks sending the signal that, just six months into his second term, Obama is fresh out of ideas. There’s little hope of getting Congress to act on major initiatives and little appetite in the White House to fight for bold new legislation that is likely to fail. And so the president, it seems, is going into reruns...If he’s to break through the resistance, Obama will need some bold new proposals. That’s why his speech returning to the oldies would seem to confirm that the White House has given up on big achievements." Dana Milbank in The Washington Post.

KELLY: Bonjour, America. "Watching the free-for-all in Washington over immigration reform, it’s easy to conclude that an airtight border has always been our national goal...The trouble with this narrative, as I discovered when serving as the American consul general in Quebec City in the late 1990s, is that it flies in the face of our own history...From the late 1800s to the early 1900s, nearly a million French Canadians poured across our northern border to take jobs in New England textile and shoe mills...The United States not only survived this unregulated onslaught, it prospered. Indeed, our history suggests that having an open border with our continental neighbors isn’t such a bad thing." Stephen R. Kelly in The New York Times.

YGLESIAS: Plans that could save Detroit. "A perhaps even more radical, outside-the-box notion would be to repopulate Detroit with immigrants...The 60,000 or so foreign-born workers it would take to bring Detroit back to its 1960 share of foreign-born residents would be a drop in the bucket compared with the tens of millions eager to come to America. That means we could be choosy, insisting that the majority of visa recipients be highly skilled and have some pending offer of employment. Potential access to a new crop of skilled workers would create a powerful incentive for existing companies to open a Detroit office, or for investors to finance Detroit-based startups." Matthew Yglesias in Slate.

DAVIDSON: The perverse effects of rent regulation. "[The East Village] area is steadily becoming more like most of Manhattan: dominated by those with high incomes paying seemingly absurd rents, while the poor either leave or stay in government housing on the periphery. While older affordable housing is reaching the end of its life cycle, new affordable housing’s major source of public funding — Congress — is planning comprehensive tax-and-spending reform. This could pose an existential threat to New York’s regulatory efforts to keep Manhattan affordable for the poor." Adam Davidson in The New York Times.

PORTER: Pro-baby, but not in an economic sense. "Conservatives have a particularly soft spot for babies. They tend to have more children than liberals and they are much more likely to oppose abortion rights...[T]here is an odd inconsistency in conservatives’ stance on procreation: many also support some of the harshest cuts in memory to government benefit programs for families and children...[T]he United States lags far behind in providing the government support that makes it easier for many couples to start a family..." Eduardo Porter in The New York Times.

Fascinating interactive interlude: How college majors end up in different careers.

2) A Summers Fed? 

Right now, Larry Summers is the front-runner for Fed chair. "People dismissed Summers’s chances a month or two ago, but he’s increasingly viewed as the leading candidate today — and opinions on this, for reasons I don’t fully understand (though I suspect have to do with a bunch of elite trial balloons going up at the same time), have really hardened in the last 72 hours. So after conversations with plugged-in sources both inside and outside the process, here’s what’s behind the changing odds...President Obama really likes Summers. And he’s surrounded by Summers’s longtime colleagues and friends. Conversely, Obama doesn’t really know Yellen, and nor do any of the White House’s economic principals." Ezra Klein in The Washington Post.

READ: Larry Summers at the Seib/Wessel breakfast.

SCHEIBER: Wait, can we talk this Summers thing over first? "Summers would almost certainly have made a better Fed chairman in the pre-transparency era (prior to Alan Greenspan), when dissent was more hidden from public view and the chairman could rule with a heavier hand. By contrast, Ben Bernanke’s egoless-ness and deferential style go a long way toward explaining his success at moving the Fed as far as he has—on quantitative easing and other unorthodox methods of stimulating the economy." Noam Scheiber in the New Republic.

Obama's economic push inspires new Republican attacks. "As President Obama aims to focus public attention on the economy once again, House and Senate Republicans have offered two different critiques in an effort to undermine his message: Obama’s economic plans could lead to a government shutdown, and they are the latest sign the administration keeps changing the topic of conversation." Juliet Eilperin in The Washington Post.

Relax, mortgage standards. You're so tense. "Concerned that tougher mortgage rules could hamper the housing recovery, regulators are preparing to relax a key plank of the rules proposed after the financial crisis. The watchdogs, which include the Federal Reserve and Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., want to loosen a proposed requirement that banks retain a portion of the mortgage securities they sell to investors, according to people familiar with the situation." Nick Timiraos and Alan Zibel in The Wall Street Journal.

...Relatedly, here's where we stand on housing finance reform. "[T]he real clash over the look of the mortgage market will be fought by two competing interests: business and real-estate groups that want to preserve a federal backstop and antigovernment libertarians who want to eliminate it...The bill in the House has strong backing from conservative academics who say the U.S. would be better off with a mostly private mortgage market...The bill has attracted strong opposition from home builders and real-estate agents because steps to raise the cost of mortgage lending could hurt their ability to sell homes. Also, the measure has provoked concern within the financial-services industry because the elimination of Fannie and Freddie could degrade the deep, liquid credit markets that attracted an array of investors to fund U.S. mortgages, particularly 30-year, fixed-rate loans that banks don't like to hold on their books and which don't exist in many other countries." Nick Timiraos in The Wall Street Journal.

Senate committee looks at banks' involvement in commodity markets. "The hearing, convened by the Senate Financial Institutions and Consumer Protection subcommittee, came as Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase and others face growing scrutiny over their role in the commodities markets and the extent to which their activities can inflate prices paid by manufacturers and consumers...The ability of those bank subsidiaries to gather nonpublic information on commodities stores and shipping also could give the banks an unfair advantage in the markets and cost consumers billions of dollars, the witnesses said." Edward Wyatt in The New York Times.

Who works the longest days? "A recent release from the Labor Department’s American Time Use Survey shows that men employed full time work slightly longer hours than their female counterparts, 8.46 hours versus 7.87 hours. For part-timers, women work slightly longer hours...People who work in farming, fishing and forestry work an average of 6.92 hours on their average workday, compared with workers in installation, maintenance and repair, who put in 8.35 hours on their typical workday." Catherine Rampell in The New York Times.

Futuristic interlude: How would driverless cars change the world and transportation?

3) Obamacare loses support among moderates

Moderate Democrats are quitting on Obamacare. "The landmark health-reform law passed in 2010 has never been very popular and always highly partisan, but a new Washington Post-ABC News poll finds that a group of once loyal Democrats has been steadily turning against Obamacare: Democrats who are ideologically moderate or conservative. Just after the law was passed in 2010, fully 74 percent of moderate and conservative Democrats supported the federal law making changes to the health-care system. But just 46 percent express support in the new poll, down 11 points in the past year." Scott Clement in The Washington Post.

Denis McDonough to Democrats: We've got this. "White House chief of staff Denis McDonough quietly added the job of Capitol Hill confidence builder to his portfolio. Armed with a PowerPoint presentation and a direct line to President Barack Obama, McDonough has spent the past three months soothing Democratic anxieties over the most divisive health care expansion in decades...[T]he administration has conducted more than 20 briefings since May with House and Senate lawmakers and staff, including some from Republican offices...The McDonough meetings have served two purposes, Democratic officials said. One is to give lawmakers a high-level outlet to raise issues about implementation. The other is to provide confidence that their concerns will be addressed — in essence, persuade them to vent their frustrations privately." Carrie Budoff Brown and John Bresnahan in Politico.

Explainer: These maps are the key to Obamacare’s success – or failure. Sarah Kliff in The Washington Post.

Bill aims to reshape medical pricing. "A bipartisan group of legislators has drafted a bill that would reshape the way the nation pays doctors, responding to criticism that the nation’s current method of valuing medical procedures misprices payments...The legislation, which is partly based on proposals from Congress’ Medicare watchdog, would require Medicare officials to collect data such as how much time doctors spend doing procedures. It would reduce the doctor payment for overvalued services. A House subcommittee approved a draft of the bill Tuesday. The bipartisan group’s focus on mispriced services is part of a much larger bill that also seeks to rescind the complex annual adjustments made to Medicare payments for physicians." Peter Whoriskey in The Washington Post. 

Key House subcommittee advances permanent 'doc fix.' "A key House subcommittee approved a bipartisan proposal to repeal Medicare's flawed physician payment formula and replace it with a system that rewards doctors for high-quality care. The Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Health passed the bill by voice vote Tuesday, capping years of effort on a permanent "doc fix."...The Energy and Commerce bill would repeal the SGR and create options for doctors to be paid based on the quality of their care rather than the volume of services they provide. This strategy is expected to gradually lower healthcare costs over time. Providers who remain in the traditional, volume-based "fee for service" model would see a permanent 5 percent pay cut under the bill." Elise Viebeck in The Hill.

Alright, alright, we can't completely avoid the Weiner news interlude: Slate's hilarious "Carlos Danger" name generator.

4) New fiscal crises are in the waiting

Risk of a budget impasse rises. "The White House and congressional Republicans on Tuesday ratcheted up the chances of another down-to-the-wire budget showdown in the fall, with both sides digging in on their policy positions and offering little evidence that negotiations are under way...The policy differences have the potential to engulf Congress in a chaotic and cloudy September, with multiple deadlines looming that could affect financial markets, businesses and consumers. Congress must settle on new plans to fund the government by the end of the fiscal year in September, and the Treasury Department could hit the debt ceiling and run out of room to borrow money to pay its bills sometime during October or November. Time is short, as both the House and Senate are set to leave Washington in 10 days and won't return until the second week of September." Corey Boles and Damian Paletta in The Wall Street Journal.

...Some of the biggest fights on the debt ceiling will be intra-Republican. "Warnings from the White House, Wall Street and the world economic community be damned: Debt ceiling drama is back. The rapidly approaching fight over lifting the nation’s borrowing limit won’t only pit Republicans against President Barack Obama but also pit Republicans against Republicans...At this point, some Senate Republicans appear to be in a deal-making mood — endangering the nation’s creditworthiness runs counter to cultivating an image of a party that wants to get things done. But House Republican leaders have been telling their members for months that the debt ceiling is where they should pick their fight with the White House." Jake Sherman and Burgess Everett in Politico.

Senate, House at odds over IRS funding. "A Senate subcommittee on Tuesday approved a bill to fund the IRS and several other agencies at substantially higher levels in the upcoming fiscal year than would be allowed under a House counterpart bill. The Senate bill would provide $23.2 billion in spending authority for various agencies, up $1.8 billion from 2013 levels, including $12 billion for the IRS, up nearly $280 million." Eric Yoder in The Washington Post.

House Republican budget strategy is collapsing. "Like an army that’s outrun its supply line, the Republican budget strategy in Congress shows almost daily signs of coming apart. The central premise, as sold by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, was that Washington could wipe out deficits in 10 years and protect defense spending, all while embracing the lower appropriations caps dictated by sequestration...Against their better judgment, Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee have been required to cut important investments in science, community development and foreign aid. Senate Republicans are peeling off in protest — setting up a crucial procedural vote at noon Tuesday on the transportation and housing budget." David Rogers in Politico.

Defense firms weathering budget cuts more easily than expected. "Bethesda-based Lockheed Mar­tin, the world’s largest defense contractor, reported Tuesday that its profit rose 10 percent, to $859 million, during the second quarter even as revenue dipped slightly. Northrop Grumman and General Dynamics, two other large contractors, are scheduled to report results Wednesday...Defense contractors “overhyped the immediacy of the sequester impacts, and I think that blew some if not all of their credibility,” said Todd Harrison, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “And the truth is there are going to be impacts; they’re just not immediate.”" Marjorie Censer and Jim Tankersley in The Washington Post.

Minidocumentaries are the coolest interlude: "The Pixel Painter".

5) Have we nominated everybody yet?

Senate panel to examine Obama’s NLRB replacement picks. "President Obama’s latest picks to sit on the National Labor Relations Board are scheduled to testify on Tuesday before a Senate panel...Obama’s new picks are Nancy Shiffer, associate general counsel at the AFL-CIO, and Kent Hirozawa, who is chief counsel to NLRB chairman Mark Gaston Pearce. The board needs at least three members to issue rulings. The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee has already approved three of Obama’s other NLRB nominees: Gaston and labor attorneys Harry Johnson and Phil Miscimarra. The full Senate has not voted on whether to confirm those nominees." Josh Hicks in The Washington Post.

UN ambassador nominee clears Senate committee vote. "The Senate Foreign Relations Committee overwhelmingly approved Samantha Power on Tuesday to be ambassador to the United Nations, clearing the way for a vote in the full Senate. All but 3 of the panel’s 18 members voted in favor of Ms. Power, who was expected to win confirmation easily." Reuters.

McCain won't delay nomination for chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "Senator John McCain, who is calling for greater American involvement in the Syrian civil war, said Tuesday that he was lifting his hold on Gen. Martin E. Dempsey’s nomination for a second term as Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman. Mr. McCain, Republican of Arizona, said last week that he would block the nomination after he and the general had a testy exchange over whether the administration was doing enough to assist Syrian rebels." Thom Shanker in The New York Times.

Probe of visa program threatens to sidetrack a DHS nomination. "The Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general is investigating whether a top Obama administration immigration official improperly helped foreign investors obtain U.S. visas, according to congressional staffers familiar with the inquiry. The probe of Alejandro Mayorkas, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, threatens to delay Senate consideration of his nomination as second in command at the DHS." Tom Hamburger and Ben Pershing in The Washington Post.

Reading material interlude: The best sentences Wonkblog read today.

Wonkblog Roundup

Why states should meddle in their cities’ businessLydia DePillis.

These maps are the key to Obamacare’s success – or failureSarah Kliff.

Nate Silver’s genius isn’t math. It’s journalismEzra Klein.

‘Orange Is the New Black’ got you upset about prison? The real Piper explains what to do about it. Dylan Matthews.

Why digital dirty laundry keeps taking down public figuresAndrea Peterson.

Right now, Larry Summers is the front-runner for Fed chairEzra Klein.

The royal birth cost $15,000. The average American birth is billed at $30,000Sarah Kliff.

Holy smoke! The new pope tripled online video streamingBrian Fung.

Shut up, royal baby haters. Monarchy is awesomeDylan Matthews.

The science of Wikipedia flamewarsMax Ehrenfreund.

The UK wants to filter porn. Here’s how it might hurt the InternetAndrea Peterson.

Et Cetera

Longread -- "Slow Ideas," Atul Gawande, The New Yorker.

Federal judge recognizes gay married couple in Ohio, despite state banJuliet Eilperin in The Washington Post.

New power triangle: John McCain, Chuck Schumer, Denis McDonough. Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen in Politico.

Student loan rate vote expected this week despite division among DemocratsJenna Johnson in The Washington Post.

Education overhaul faces a test of partisanshipMotoko Rich in The New York Times.

O’Malley expected to propose aggressive new standards for renewable energy useSteven Mufson in The Washington Post.

Got tips, additions, or comments? E-mail me.

Wonkbook is produced with help from Michelle Williams.

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Brian Fung · July 24, 2013