Tag Archives: United States

Hoist by his own petard: Obama, the ACA, and the neo-progressive model

27 Nov

The recent controversy over HealthCare.gov, the still glitchy website through which the uninsured are supposed to apply for coverage under the Affordable Care Act, had seemed to us like a tempest in a teacup. It looked like just another iteration of partisan posturing over a law that is somehow both a fait accompli and an incomprehensible mess. But a scathing editorial from Bob Kuttner, editor of The American Prospect, made us stand up and take notice. Attacking Obama for being “tragically and inexcusably hands-off” Kuttner concluded that “the debacle reflects both flawed legislation and flawed leadership.” This editorial is notable because, for one, Kuttner is a left-liberal, usually sympathetic critic of the administration, not a right-wing bandwagoner. Other liberals began to join in. William Galston, a political philosopher who worked in the Clinton administration and now at the Brookings Institute, recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal that “Every experienced manager knows that, left to its own devices, the system will not always behave this way…So the president must lean against these perverse tendencies…[but] it has become clear that President Obama failed to institute such arrangements.”

These criticisms of Obama are more than just indications of liberal discontent. The attack on Obama for being incompetent hits the president where it hurts: the latter’s attempt to replace politics with expert management. The health care law was not just Obama’s signature initiatve, it was also the single best representative of his general post-political approach to politics. Obama thought he could rise above partisanship by taking an essentially Republican plan and then leaving it up to Congress to manage the details of compromise. He thought he could avoid all semblance of ‘class warfare’ by taking single-payer off the table and by eliminating any talk of redistribution. He thought he could find a consensus plan by working with, rather than taking on, the insurance companies. In other words, the belief was that he could get something done without taking any sides or even acknowledging that there were significant conflicts of interest and principle. The result was a public-private partnership that yielded a measure of agreement not so much because everyone could see their interests represented in the final result as because nobody could understand that result. It was legislation by stupefication.

Yet amid all of this, there was still one promise – that the Obama administration itself understood the moving parts. Once passed, the wonks and managers would deploy their technocratic savvy to guarantee the thing worked. ‘Fixing a broken system’ is the hopelessly apolitical metaphor endlessly deployed to describe this (and every other) piece of social policy the administration promoted. Somehow, though, the master technician rose so high above politics that he never made it back down to earth. As Kuttner observes, “This law, after all, is Obama’s signature initiative. It has been on the books since March 2010, with a full implementation date of 2014. An engaged chief executive would have been demanding frequent and detailed progress reports from his team. He would have gotten early warnings about possible glitches. But this president is tragically and inexcusably hands-off.” Galston says much the same, noting that in late September and early October checklists showed major and repeated failures during dry-runs of the website, concluding that there is good reason why “the president’s standing as a competent manager of his own government has eroded badly.” There is very little to be said for Obama’s passionless program of ‘getting things done,’ but even by his own low standards he has been caught out. In the Obama era being a bad manager is close to the worst thing you can say about anyone.

Of course, now that a management consultant has been brought in to patch up the website, we are supposed to rest assured that all will be right in the world. Undoubtedly, the technical problems with the website will eventually be resolved. But this was never just a problem with administrative efficiency, it was with a model of politics that one might call neo-progressive. Despite their many limitations, the original American progressives at least thought there were political tasks that could be best achieved through collective political agency. Neo-progressives like Obama, and Clinton before him, have raised what began as Reagan’s attack on Washington to the level of a concept. Not only have they tended to accept the view that public ownership and administration is, in itself, inefficient when compared to ‘market solutions,’ but they have turned this into a kind of principle. The operating assumption is that any government program would be better run as a public-private partnership operating in an artificially created market. The truth is much the opposite.

Here again, Kuttner’s recent editorial is on the mark. Noting the difference between Social Security and Medicare on the one hand, and the ACA on the other, he writes

“These great achievements [Social Security/Medicare] are public public programs, efficient to administer and testament to the fact that government can serve social objectives far more effectively than the private sector. Obamacare, by contrast, is the inefficiency of “public-private partnerships” at its worst. It is a public subsidy for the private insurance industry. No fewer than 55 separate contractors were hired to design the software. Yet though it is not a true public program worthy of the name, Obamacare is being used to discredit government.”

The argument generalizes to other boondoggles, like private prisons and highways. Not to mention that other signature, public-private Obama initiative – the charter school. These ‘partnerships’ reveal a special viciousness – they are harder to manage. That is because, as Kuttner notes elsewhere, “a layer of complexity is added because of the need to supervise and monitor the private vendor. Corruption is invited, because it pays the vendor to offer disguised bribes to the public officials in charge of the contract.” The standard response, moreover, is to try to expertly manipulate the incentives of the market in which these entities operate, itself an impossible task that introduces only more complexity and confusion.

The deepest irony, then, of the neo-progressive vision is that its faith in expert management is belied by its lack of belief in the public. Indeed, the reliance on private contractors, management consultants, financial executives, isn’t just a sign of corporate influence, but also of a skin-deep confidence in their own powers. It is not so much the product of corporate corruption as it is a vision of politics that invites such corruption, beginning with a natural and spontaneous belief in the intellectual prowess of the managers, CEOs and Wall Street financiers upon whom they end up relying. In this context, Obama’s oft-noted deference to major private sector consultants, in areas like finance, health and educational policy, are not so much a personality quirk as an ideological position. Rising above politics turns into an attempt to find a place beyond reproach, indeed, beyond the point at which one can be held accountable at all.

No wonder, then, that the legislative products are not only incomprehensible and difficult to administer, not to mention designed to blur the boundaries between public responsibility and private interest, but that Obama then finds himself hoist by his own petard. Of course, from the neo-progressive standpoint, it appears like everyone from Republicans on down to the “professional Left” is unreasonable. But it turns out the truly unreasonable position is the one that hopes to avoid the messy world of taking sides, of competing interests and political fights. At the end of the day, democratically determined objectives, like universal health care or public education are best promoted…democratically. That doesn’t just mean through socialized programs, but in a way that makes as transparent as possible the lines of authority and responsibility.

The Shadow Right

11 Oct

A familiar progressive narrative in the United States goes something like the following: “we could have achieved so much if it weren’t for the Southern racists, the religious reactionaries, the corrupt billionaires and the undemocratic procedures.” There is no question that many American institutions are deeply undemocratic, and purposefully so; it is equally evident that some of those driving the shutdown are, at best, uninterested in the normal democratic practices of convincing others of their views, and, at worst, looking for any means necessary to protect their unjust and unequal privileges.  But the recent flurry of effort to decipher just who this right-wing is reproduces a persistent error in the progressive narrative: a failure to address the conservatism of Democrats and the chaos and passivity of the American Left.

For instance, one prevailing question has been why the Republican Party would be willing to engage in apparent ‘anti-business’ brinksmanship that threatens the stability of global financial markets and draws us closer to another credit crunch? One explanation is that business does not control the Republicans (also here), which is why it can engage in seemingly irrational, ideological political games. Another explanation is that a “small group of radicals” are acting rationally with respect to their own interests, even if those interests are not the same as the national interest. Michael Lind has made the most persuasive version of this argument, claiming that this is a movement of regional elites or “local notables,” who find their power threatened by global financial markets and nationalization of social policy. Joe Lowndes reasonably argues this somewhat overlooks the national basis of the movement, and the tacit support of it among the Republican Party as a whole. And Doug Henwood has added the important point that a background class condition for these kinds of political games with American credit-worthiness and the stability of global finance is the increasingly fragmented and short-termist orientation of the capitalist class.

The emphasis of all these analyses is on the relative power and rationality of a right-wing movement. In this environment it is easy to forget some things about the Democrats and whatever stands to their left. The initial phases of this battle have essentially featured Obama going to the mats to defend the Republicans of the 1990s from the Republicans of today. Recall, for instance, that the basic principles of ‘Obamacare’ including the individual mandate come from Republican thinking circa 1994. As the negotiation now seems to be transitioning from the health care law to spending and entitlements, it is again worth recalling the Democratic embrace of the conservative position. Obama and the Democrats’ wider approach to the budget process is to affirm the need for balanced budgets (in contrast to at least some right-wing Keynesianism).  Presenting themselves as the party of responsible government and budget moderation is their only idea, even at a time when the cost of government borrowing is at historic lows. This is pretty thin gruel, especially for a public laid low by persistent high rates of unemployment, stagnating wages, and crappy jobs. All in all, the Democrats don’t have much on offer as an alternative. All they have is their much vaunted moderation. A moderation that can’t even make sense of the occasional political necessity of disruption.

But what is most striking about the present is not the virtues of moderation but of the potential power of conviction. One detects, behind all the anxiety about ‘extremists,’ ‘radicals,’ and ‘militant minorities ‘ a degree of envy. On the right there is a group with enough commitment to a shared project that is willing and able to disrupt the ordinary functioning of government. If only the Left had such wherewithal. We might, at the very least, get something more than than the economically stagnant, politically oppressive Mugwumpery of the Democratic Party.

The Real Culture War II: Utopia, Austerity and the F***** C****

18 Dec

Yesterday we argued for carrying the culture war into the heart of the American political economy. We made the very broad claim that a defining feature of our economic culture is the acceptance of limits. This might seem like a strange thing to say. Surely the last decade was marked not by limits but by a failure to acknowledge them. Individuals, businesses and eventually governments borrowed well beyond their means. That, so the story goes, was what created the credit crunch and the stagnant new normal. It is certainly the narrative behind the growing deal, in which Republicans appear to be ‘conceding’ on some tax hikes while Democrats accept 5-10% cuts to Social Security.

But that narrative exactly misreads the role of credit and consumption. The expansion of credit was largely an attempt to overcome the limits of capitalism within capitalism. As is now common knowledge, the expansion of consumer credit presupposed stagnant wages:

Real Household Debt Wealth Income

And, as the graph shows, it began with sagging profit rates of the late 1970s – perhaps most famously marked by Volcker’s revanchist announcement that “the standard of living of the average American must decline.”

Slide1

(graph from Robert Brenner, see also Henwood.) What the expansion of consumer credit permitted, in other words, was the appearance that capitalism could accommodate the expansion of desires, the demand for ‘more,’ even while suppressing labor costs and increasing the expropriation of the expropriated.

The expansion of credit over the past thirty years was in a sense a massive bridge loan to cover the transition to a leaner set of arrangements, in which more jobs would be low-paying, part-time and insecure, labor would be less able to defend attacks on the standard of living, ‘job-creating’ capital would take home a larger share of the pie and then basically sit on it, and politicians could pretend serious economic issues could simply be managed by technocrats.

The major problem with the credit crunch was not the attempt to surpass existing limits to consumption, but with the implicit practical belief that credit could in any way rise above and compensate for the class defeats of the past twenty years. Just as Obama has frequently tried to rise above politics in the name of some abstract non-partisan unity, so too did the borrowing public hope it could rise above the real disparities in society, without having to face them directly.

To put it another way, the ‘fiscal cliff’ is not just a false emergency engineered by Republicans and Democrats, it is the culmination of decades of attempting to paper over the limits, not merely injustices, of the American economy. It is not just that both parties have joined the austerity bandwagon, they in the process are attempting to neutralize the only utopian moment of the past few decades: the satisfaction of desires that the current society cannot satisfy. The expansion of debt would have been unlikely to succeed had that desire not been there to sublimate.

Of course, critics may say that many of these desires took a form not at all challenging to a consumer society. That criticism has some teeth, and we will take it up in tomorrow’s post. However, moving too quickly towards anti-consumerism not only misses the utopian moment, but also blurs quickly into the bland and conservative narrative of arguing we should do more with less. The starting point for an economic culture war must be to reject the austerity party and its culture of low expectations. Any reconstruction of meaningful alternatives must begin by rejecting that piece of our economic culture. After all, the so-called ‘solution’ of a grand bargain is really just a an attempt to throw back on society the political class’s own lack of imagination and inability to deal with the problems it has inherited.

(to be continued)

On politics and finance

30 Nov

Buried under the frenzy around the Leveson report was the British government’s coup of attracting Mark Carney, governor of the Canadian Central Bank, to London. Apparently ruled out of the running, much to the chagrin of those who felt he was the best man for the job, Carney has now been appointed as governor of the Bank of England and will take up the job next summer. For those who view these appointments as purely about expertise and experience, this is a great victory. Gone it would seem are the mercantilist days where nationality, wealth and government policy were so closely aligned. The cosmopolitan financial press, from the Financial Times to The Economist, are satisfied. Britain, it seems, is a pioneer in these international recruitments for national institutions: think of the English football team. That Carey was a Canadian certainly helped make him acceptable to the British establishment. He’s sort of one of us, after all, runs the sentiment. But the principle still stands that positions such as these are all about competence and expertise. There is no politics or partisanship here and the appointment of Carney, we are told, is proof of that.

It is also proof of a number of other things. One is that there is emerging a cadre of elite central bankers who move relatively seamlessly from one appointment to another. National boundaries seem less restrictive than in the past. This holds true to some degree at the global level, where competition for posts such as head of the IMF or the World Bank has become more intense. The old Bretton Woods division of the spoils between Europe and the United States is coming under serious pressure and may not survive the next round of appointments. And nationally, central banks are opening up with Britain leading the way. Curiously, the European Central Bank in this regard is behind the times: its appointments are rigidly based upon the principle of achieving balance between nationalities. The unfortunate Lorenzo Bini Smaghi was edged out of the ECB executive board because it wouldn’t do to have two Italians in there and no Frenchman. Draghi became director, Smaghi was out, and Benoit Coeuré was in. This seems rather old hat and overly political compared to the forward looking Bank of England. Whether other central banks follow Threadneedle Street’s example is unclear but the principle has been established and there is no short supply of expert central bankers.

It is also proof that the way we understand banking, finance and monetary policy today is entirely free of political principle. The struggle between banking and financial interests and those of elected representatives is a long-standing and epic struggle. There is nothing new there. But central banks have often been seen as exceptions. They are, after all, lenders of last resort and in that respect are eminently political institutions. Those critical of the ECB in the current crisis have often suggested that it’s role should become more, not less, political in so far as it needs to act in order to save the Eurozone from collapse. Yet the implication of Carney’s arrival is that the tie between central banks and national politics should be cut. This is a mistake. Carney may be Canadian but the Bank of England remains firmly part of the functioning and survival of the British economy. And the Bank of England should still be understood as an agent of national capital, in spite of who is running it.

Carney’s appointment also chimes with a more general feeling that politics is seeping out of macro-economic policy as a whole. Illustrative in this regard is the debate underway at the moment around who might replace Tim Geithner as US Treasury Secretary. One name that has been floated around, and who the FT considers a realistic outside contender, is Larry Fink. As head of the biggest asset management group in the world (BlackRock manages around 3.7 trillion US dollars of assets), Fink is a heavy-weight figure, as important as those running the big Wall Street banks. However, his entire background is in finance. He certainly has views about how the US economy should be run but to appoint Fink would be to give the job to an expert. And this is not a job as central banker but as Treasury Secretary, an ostensibly political appointment. Of course, experts have long been appointment to this position. There is even talk of Geithner stepping down and joining BlackRock and Fink moving in to take his place. Were this to happen, it would illustrate how firmly financiers dominate economic policymaking and how expertise in finance has become the baseline for political appointments within the US Treasury.

As we’ve argued before on this blog, expertise does matter in politics. But the overwhelming tendency today is to view macro-economic policy as a purely technical realm, rather than as one where technical questions co-exist alongside fundamental differences of political principle and alongside important moral questions. Such a tendency has the effect of shielding economic policy from public criticism and gives to public financial institutions like central banks a veneer of political and social neutrality. In fact, no amount of expert knowledge can obviate the need to make political choices. The most honest experts will say that various scenarios are possible and that the choices depend upon what outcomes we want. It is these outcomes that we should be debating, not which expert can magically solve our ethical and political dilemmas about what sort of society we want to live in.

Varieties of finance?

17 Oct

In a previous post, we looked at the structure of the European banking system. We asked whether there was a particular European story that can help explain the sorry state of the current European economy. It was noted that the size of the European banking sector, so much larger than in the United States, reflected the central role banks in Europe play in financing the private sector. In the US, there is more reliance on capital markets than on banks and so the assets to GDP ratio of US banks is much lower than in Europe.

Can we transform those differences into something more systematic? Do differences in financial markets point to deeper and broader differences between different types of societies? The question here is whether there exists the same kind of variety in financial sectors as there does in capitalist economies more generally. A popular way of classifying capitalist systems is according to type: liberal market economies, coordinated market economies and mixed market economies. This is the famous “varieties of capitalism” approach. Can we say that the financial sectors in Europe are shaped by these national institutional factors? One basic distinction, for instance, is between market-based and relationship-based borrowing and lending. In more liberal market economies like the UK, companies are expected to rely more on the open market as a source of finance. In a coordinated market economy, corporate financing is fed through bank-to-business relationships.

Finding out whether any of these patterns exist in the date on financial markets is not easy. Interest has tended to be in the ties between business and politics, not in the correspondence between differences in financial markets and broader varieties of capitalist production. But there is some data out there. In the Liikanen report on the European banking industry, we see little evidence for these kinds of patterns. In terms of the balance between stock market capitalization, total debt securities and bank assets, we do see differences between Europe and the US. But within Europe, a supposedly liberal market economy like the UK has bank assets that massively outstrip any other European country and offsets its larger stock market capitalisation (p119 of the Liikanen report). The data on financial institutions and markets collected by Thomas Beck, Ash Demirgüç-Kunt and Ross Devine (available here) is extensive but suggests that the biggest difference is between income levels, not between varieties of capitalism. Another way of thinking about the varieties of financial markets is whether it can help explain different national government responses to the current economic and financial crisis. One study of this by Beat Weber and Stefan Schmitz (available here) found that institutional factors did not in fact influence very much the rescue packages put together by European governments. They point instead to other factors. The degree of inequality in society, which they take as an indication of the fact that policymakers in those countries use access to credit as a substitute for higher wages (what Colin Crouch calls “privatized Keynesianism” – see here), is for them one element that explains the form the government bail-outs took. On the varieties of capitalism, they note that as an approach it is focused more on production and not on financial systems. It has therefore little to say about financialization as such.

National differences remain important and a feature of the current crisis is the difference in the national responses. Behind efforts to build a common European response are national bail-out packages that differ greatly in terms of size and in the strictness of their conditions. But financialization as such, and the boom of the late 2000s, was common to many high-income countries. By way of explaining the current crisis, Beck and his colleagues write that “the lower margins for traditional lines of business and the search for higher returns were possible only through high-risk taking” (p78 of this paper). The implication here is that the lack of profitability in the real economy drove the expansion of financial activity in the 2000s. This explanation isn’t perfect but it certainly helps us understand why it has been so difficult for governments to return to positive growth. If financialisation was itself more symptom than cause, then we are still left with the causes of the crisis today.

The state of European banking

5 Oct

 

In his assessment of a new report published on banking reform within the EU, Martin Wolf starts off with an arresting statistic. In 2010, he writes, US banks had assets worth 8.6 trillion Euros. Banks in the EU had assets worth 42.9 trillion Euros. For the US, those assets represented 80% of GDP; in the EU, they represented 350% of GDP. The EU’s banking sector, claims Wolf, is too big to fail and “too big to save”.

Wolf’s fact raises interesting questions. Can we say that in Europe the expansion of the financial sector has been so significant that it dwarfs developments in the US and gives us an explanation for Europe’s current sovereign debt crisis? Explanations of the Eurozone crisis have in recent months increasingly focused on governance issues tied to the Eurozone itself and to poor economic performance of many Eurozone economies. Is the implication that the crisis is a European affair?

A useful place to look in order to answer these questions is the report that Wolf cites, put together by a group of experts and led by Errki Liikanen, governor of Finland’s central bank. Most of the coverage of the report has been about its recommendations: ones that are not so different from those of the Vickers report in the UK (see here for a comment on Vickers). However, the report itself gives a detailed account of the crisis and of the transformations in the European banking sector.

In general, it implies that whilst there is variation, there is no “European exception”. The origins of the crisis lie in the collapse in the sub-prime mortgage market in the United States, which put a number of lending institutions into serious difficulty. This localized crisis quickly fed through an internationalized financial system to affect non-US institutions. Many European banks were left with very bad loans on their books: the German bank, Deutsche Industriebank IKB, was one of the first to be bailed out by the Bundesbank. As early as August 2007, the interbank lending market in Europe dried up altogether: the ECB had to step in with an injection of 95 billion Euros. In December of the same year, it injected a further 300 billion. At issue here is the generalized dependence of US and European financial institutions on what turned out to be very bad loans.

On the size of the assets of European banks, compared to other parts of the world, the report also has a lot of good information. The report notes that the EU banking sector is very large when compared with other countries and regions, as the figures above make clear. However, it notes that this reflects the fact that bank intermediation plays a bigger role in Europe than elsewhere. What this means is that banks are the principal source of private sector financing in Europe in contrast to the US for example. Banks in Europe also have mortgages on their balance sheets, whereas in the US Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac soak up these mortgages and are government-sponsored institutions. The staggering difference in the assets of banks in Europe and the US is not automatically a sign of different trends in financialisation but points also to some more long-standing differences in the nature of private sector financing. The report also notes that the restructuring of the banking sector which occurred in the US post-Lehman, in particular the collapse of small and medium-sized banks, has not occurred in Europe. The level of total assets has thus remained constant, propped up by ECB and national government intervention in Europe. Here there is a marked difference between Europe and the US: interventions in Europe have prevented restructuring, in the US they were a conduit for change.

There is no particular European story to the growth of the financial sector in Europe. Some specific features of bank intermediation have interacted with more generic features of financialisation that we can observe in Europe and elsewhere. What is less clear from the report itself is whether the growth of the financial sector has been the result of changes within the non-financial sector, a freer regulatory environment or simply the working out of a speculative frenzy within financial institutions aiming to make more money in the short term, with little regard for longer term consequences. The recommendations of the report suggests it believes that the latter two factors are the most important.

Still no alternative to austerity

24 Aug

An interesting post on austerity over at the Economist’s Free Exchange blog. It makes the point that British business – generally in favour of austerity measures when they were first introduced back in 2010 – is now beginning to change its mind. It’s not difficult to work out why: Britain is facing a third quarterly decline in GDP, with a 0.5% contraction in the British economy expected for the second quarter of 2012. For the UK this is particularly galling given the fiscal boost of the Olympics and the expectation that this would mean a heady summer for at least some British businesses. Perhaps it is true that as many people left the UK as entered it for the Games, making the net effect close to zero.

The Economist’s post suggests that the tide is perhaps turning in the UK, with austerity giving way to a new consensus around pro-growth measures. It notes that Cameron’s government is considering an “economic regeneration bill” for the Autumn and that Boris Johnson – with an eye perhaps on the Tory leadership – is talking up the need for big government infrastructure projects (based around London, of course).

The difficulties faced by the UK economy should give food for thought to those arguing that the route to economic growth lies via an exit from the Eurozone. One might have expected the UK to boost competitiveness through cheapening its currency but – on the contrary – the British pound has become something of a safe haven for those with lots of cash. Life outside the Eurozone may mean currency flexibility and low borrowing costs but that isn’t helping the British economy. The debt burden for individuals and businesses, incurred in the heady pre-2008 years, is still depressing growth and holding back new investment plans.

The idea that the tide is turning at the level of elite opinion is difficult to substantiate. There were always voices calling for moderate fiscal stimulus alongside cuts in government spending. Back in 2010 the debate between the Tories and Labour was not about whether the government should drastically reduce spending – both agreed that it should – but it was all about timing. Shock treatment versus gradual reductions eased along via some discretionary spending. Austerity was the backdrop with the debate focused on how, not if. Little, it seems, has changed.

As noted on The Current Moment last week, the debate in the US presidential campaign is also about how the government’s deficit can be reduced, with both camps fighting over who is more credible in their deficit-cutting plans. In France, a government was elected with an ostensibly pro-growth agenda. In his campaign speeches, Hollande regularly fulminated against austerity politics, claiming he represented an alternative. And yet – bar the few measures introduced that are intended to put a little more money in people’s pockets – the real challenge for the Hollande government is the 2013 budget and finding the money to meet its balanced budget obligations. Much to the chagrin of the left of the Socialist Party, Hollande has signed off on the EU’s fiscal compact with little regard for the growth measures he had promised. Budget cuts will be financed in part via higher taxes but also via spending cuts. The Greek premier, Antonis Samara, is about to undertake a desperate trip to Paris and Berlin where he will ask for a bit more leeway in his efforts at balancing the Greek deficit. Merkel and Hollande are shifting all responsibility for the decision on whether to grant Greece an extension to the Troika, as if the issue was a technical one to be decided by accountants from the European Commission. From the US through to Europe, there is little evidence that the tide is turning.

Even though economies are stagnating under the burden of austerity measures, the intellectual case for an alternative still needs to made. Until then, it will be more of the same.

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