Thursday, November 07, 2002

A Solution for the Democrats: How to win next time

One of my favourite writers, Dinesh D’Souza, provides some timely advice to the Democrats on their recent electoral misfortunes:

Many on the political Left are blaming the leadership of the Democratic party for moving to the center, accommodating President Bush's agenda, and thus producing the catastrophic losses of Tuesday's election. "Let us stop playing Republican wannabe," these leftists say, "and start standing up for something."

These critics are right. The Democrats could improve their political fortunes by unequivocally embracing the three central principles of the political Left: anti-Americanism, economic piracy, and moral degeneracy.

How to Argue with a Non-Economist

And now for a bit of shameless self promotion.

At a recent meeting of the ACT Branch of the Economic Society of Australia, Lindy Edwards talked about her recent book, "How to Argue With an Economist". Edwards is the former advisor to former Democrats leader Natasha Stott-Despoja.

Unfortunately I did not attend this ESA meeting, so I missed out on hearing Ms Edwards' words of wisdom in person. What a huge disappointment. Not.

No, I was still getting over the jetlag from my trip to London where I listened to James Buchanan, Gordon Tullock, Harold Demsetz, Robert Bartley, Ed Fuelner, Bill Niskanen , David Boaz and others talk about the principles of a free society.

Given the choice, I would have to say that I would take this bunch of guys over Lindy Edwards any day of the week, and twice on Sundays.

In any case, I read Edwards' book well before it was officially launched and I wrote this review of it, which was published in the Canberra Times earlier this year. A little while later, Ms Edwards responded to my review over at The New Australian, and I, in turn replied. I have received a couple of requests for these correspondences, and so here they are - the full, uncut versions. They are a bit long, sorry:

Self-anointed guru sets out to right the wrongs of the world
Canberra Times, 11 July 2002
By Alex Robson

IN 1995 Professor Thomas Sowell, of Stanford University, wrote a powerful book (The Vision of the Anointed) in which he detailed the rhetorical methods that the Left use to support their views of social, political and economic issues.

Briefly, Sowell’s thesis is as follows: the articulate, well-educated anointed identify a particular “social problem”, and perceive that this is caused by the inadequacies of certain groups of individuals or social processes. The anointed then frame the problem as some sort of “national crisis” and, by professing superior knowledge and education about the issue, offer a categorical solution.

To identify the problem, create the crisis, and arrive at the solution, the anointed resort to argumentative means that are fallacious, meaningless and contradictory on multiple counts.

If the “solution” is actually implemented, the anointed then ignore evidence that it actually made things worse, and instead engage in self-congratulation merely because their “solution” was adopted.

How to Argue with an Economist, by Lindy Edwards, is a textbook example of Sowell’s thesis in action.

According to Edwards, Australians currently face a terrifying national crisis: a “conflict between our national culture and economic system”.

Most readers, including me, would probably agree that this sounds pretty horrific. Fortunately, thanks to Edwards, the causes of this “crisis” (what Sowell refers to as the “Aha!” factor) are easily identifiable: there are too many “government officials” who “believe in economic rationalism and the market”. According to Edwards, while “the market is the only path open to us”, it is unfortunately “riddled with problems that need solving”: markets are not “efficient”; there is no “level playing field”; and there are “pervasive market failures”. Worst of all, according to Edwards, “the market is blind to the things that matter most: purpose, identity, meaning and community relationships”.

Again, most of us would probably agree that it would indeed be a national crisis if “the market” caused people to feel that they had no “purpose” or “meaning” in their lives.

But there is simply no evidence of such a crisis, let alone any evidence that “the market” or “economic rationalism” are responsible for it. This is a classic, predictable tactic of the anointed: identify some “problem” (something that you don’t like about society in this case, “the market”), and then create a fake crisis surrounding it.

The next step for the anointed is to devise a categorical solution to the phoney crisis. Edwards is able to provide a categorical solution here because she ignores the most fundamental lesson of economics (or perhaps, given the level of scholarship of the book, she simply fails to understand it): all economic, social and political activities have costs, and therefore categorical solutions to economic and social problems do not exist:there are only policy trade-offs, not categorical policy “solutions”.

Having conveniently ignored this lesson, Edwards proceeds to tell us how to solve the bogus crisis: the answer is to “shift allegiances” from “the free market” to “the democratic market”. Apparently there are no real costs involved in such a shift; the key is simply to recognise that the market is merely a “cultural system”, and because “we created it, we can change it”. Never mind private property rights, the rule of law, or the desire of ordinary individuals to improve their material well-being; we just need to recognise that “relationships, identity and purpose are paramount”, and “the economy should be organised around these values” (as if “organising” an economy is as simple as engaging in an academic discussion in one’s office).

According to Edwards, the “goal of the market” should be to provide “a true democracy of consumption” (this appears to consist of attempting to attain some particular final ends, using some particular means for a particular individual or group of individuals never mind that knowing such end desires is impossible both as a matter of fact and logic).

Edwards also defines a new concept of “efficiency” (“the market can only be efficient if it is just”), and she shows us how this “efficiency” can be attained: through simple government proclamation. According to Edwards, the role of government in a free society is, “as always, leadership”.

Government “authors our cultural beliefs” and “enshrines those beliefs in policies and legislation”; government therefore “has the power to set what is deemed to be market failure”. The solution is for “the community” to simply redefine efficiency and “resurrect the ideal”.

How to Argue with an Economist is classic “vision of the anointed” material. It is also one of the most irrational books ever written. Nearly every word in it is wrong. The back of the book reports that, in her role as an adviser to Natasha Stott-Despoja, Edwards has apparently gained a “unique understanding of economics from the inside of politics”. After reading this book, I would agree that her understanding of economics is unique.

How to Argue with An Economist, by Lindy Edwards (June 2002, Cambridge University Press, Paperback, $27.95)

Edwards' Reply

The review by Alex Robson of my recently released book "How to Argue with an Economist" demonstrates a degree of intellectual cowardice of which The New Australian should be deeply ashamed.

The self stated goal of the book is to create a more productive dialogue between the advocates and opponents of free markets. It seeks to explain both sides of the debate, and to strip it of its jargon so that people can debate their ideas and values rather than simply sling mud from a distance.

Good economists have welcomed the contribution to the debate. The Economics' Society review said:

"The book breaks out of the rather tired game of long distance stone throwing by the critics of economic rationalism, with occasional responses by the rationalists themselves .....

The great strength of Lindy Edwards' book is that it sympathetically and seriously engages both economists and their critics.

[it is].. a book which combines passionate argument with generosity and fairmindedness."

But Alex Robson is not up to fairminded debate. Unable to engage with the ideas, he blatantly set out to discredit the book.

He attacked the intellectual credentials of the book. He claimed the book had a "low level of scholarship" yet it passed through Cambridge University Press's rigorous academic review.

He claimed I don't understand economics, yet the book has won the support of numerous Professors of Economics and economic commentators.

Unable to engage with the arguments of the book, he misrepresented it and then dismissed it as foolishness.

Robson's review is intellectual cowardice in the extreme. He fled from any serious discussion. And he made disturbing efforts to shut down discussion and silence debate.

Robson is disgrace to everything his ideology, and TNA, is supposed to represent.

My Rejoinder

In all discussions of economic policy, the real frontier never changes. Without exception, behind every policy debate the issue is always the same: mercantilism and government intervention versus laissez faire and free markets. Some people look at the distribution of income and consumption and find that it is not what they think it should be, and want someone to do something about it. This is the way it has always been, the way it is now, and the way it always will be.

Some people, like Lindy Edwards, write books arguing that there should be a “true democracy of consumption”, that some goods and services should be universally provided, and that the distribution of goods, services and income should somehow be changed so that they are more “just”.

But goods, services and income are not - and in practice never could be - “distributed” by any single person or group according some notion of “justice”. Income is earned by individuals, goods and services are produced, and are exchanged for other goods and services. The goods and services that some individuals produce are highly valued by other individuals and so incomes will differ, but the desires or actions of some omniscient being or policy-maker did not bring this about. Some goods and services are very scarce, and the fact that they have high prices is a signal to consumers that they should consume less of these goods and more of others. Prices also tell producers that more of these goods should be produced, instead of other goods.

These observations have nothing to do with free markets, our national culture, the ideological views of Canberra bureaucrats, human relationships, identity, purpose, or anything else. They are simply a direct consequence of economic reality. Time and physical resources are scarce, and somehow individuals have to find ways of fulfilling all of their desires as best they can. But because of scarcity, most desires go unfulfilled. Simply declaring that some goods and services should be universally provided cannot change this underlying reality. We can’t rid ourselves of scarcity by abolishing prices or markets and “democratizing” consumption and production. We can’t hold a referendum and force producers and workers to produce more if they don’t believe that they will be adequately compensated for this extra production and labor effort. We can’t eliminate unemployment or unhappiness by making them illegal. The fact that extra production might meet someone’s idea of “justice” will not change the underlying economic reality that extra resources have to be diverted from somewhere else, and that this will not occur without some form of compensation. And we can’t force consumers to desire more or fewer goods by simply voting and telling them that they should change their preferences or suffer the consequences.

These are the economic realities, and there is nothing that can be done to change them. They apply regardless of whether we have free markets or “democratic markets”, or any other kind of economic system. We can’t change these realities of economics, because we did not create them. They simply exist, and that is that. If one person or group of people had designed and imposed these economic realities upon us, it would indeed have been a tremendously unfair, indecent and horrid thing to do. But they didn’t. Simply electing a group of officials and having them announce that economic realities must change does not change the underlying reality.

In her reply to my review of How to Argue with an Economist, Lindy Edwards claims that her goal was to create a more productive dialogue between the advocates and opponents of free markets. My simple point is that the book failed - spectacularly - to achieve this goal, primarily because it ignored underlying economic realities which most members of the public are already aware of. I attempted to expose her book for what it actually was, not what she intended it to be. My point was that an author cannot legitimately claim to have written a scholarly examination of economic issues if the author ignores basic economic realities - realities which any high school student of economics would be intimately familiar with. Publishing a book with Cambridge University Press is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition to qualify a work as scholarly.

It is not “cowardice” - as Edwards claims - to point out, as I did in my review, that if members of the public want to be enlightened about economics, then they should avoid reading Edwards’ book. I purchased Edwards book with an open mind, read it, and my review just happens to be an honest and considered account of what I - in my capacity as a professional economist - think of the book. Other economists have judged the book differently, and that is their prerogative. Views will differ, and that is fine with me. Some economists will think I am wrong, but I am willing to bet that the majority will agree with me. In any event, this is somewhat beside the point. I did not say that debate should not take place, or that members of the public should not try to understand economics in greater detail. It is simply not true to suggest, as Edwards does, that I am seeking to shut the debate down, because the real issues are far greater than one person, and will always be with us in some form or another. Even if I wanted to “shut down the debate” - and I don’t - this would not even be possible.

My simple point is that people who are considering purchasing Edwards’ book might be interested to know that it goes over old ground, using arguments that are far less sophisticated than those which are used by modern proponents of either side of the debate. Who knows - maybe this will encourage people to buy the book! I am happy to engage in real debate if I encounter interesting, thoughtful and challenging arguments; but the arguments in Edwards’ book did not meet any of these criteria. To repeat, the book uses rhetorical methods that have been exposed some time ago and in some detail by Thomas Sowell and others. As Sowell shows, these methods - the methods of the anointed - tend to confuse the debate, rather than encourage it. They fail to confront fundamental economic realities. For this reason I formed the view that people should not waste money on Edwards’ book.

My view of the book is that we cannot even begin to have a sensible debate if one of the starting points is the claim that there is a “conflict between our national culture and economic system.” My view is that if a member of the public wants to really understand the debate between opponents and advocates of free markets, they will not gain much insight from Edwards’ claim that “the market is blind to the things that matter most: purpose, identity, meaning and community relationships.” My view is that if professional economists like myself want to understand what opponents are really talking about, they will not be able to make much sense of Edwards claims that there are “too many economic rationalists in government bureaucracies.” These statements are uninformative and simply ignore underlying economic realities.

In my view, a book that sought to create a more productive dialogue between the advocates and opponents of free markets would ideally start with a detailed examination of the foundations of free markets - private property rights, the rule of law, freedom of contract, and so on - using a wide variety of theoretical and empirical sources from economic theory, political science, history, sociology and law.

The book would point out how these institutions deal with the underlying economic reality of scarcity. In particular, it would point out how other economic systems which communalize or “democratize” goods, services and other forms of property encourage free-riding, waste, and unenlightened selfishness, by encouraging individuals to use things which someone else has produced, without compensating them for it. It would point out that democratizing consumption encourages individuals to continually exploit the natural generosity and fellow-feeling of humans, and in practice has been completely destructive of any kind of peaceful participation in social groups. It would then point out the logical and factual fallacy that is involved in the assertion that free markets are inimical to the nurturing of human relationships, identity and purpose.

It would then go on to show that nobody “created” the idea of a market, but that these institutions emerged as a consequence of human action, rather than of human design. It would point out that markets existed long before anyone knew why they existed. The book would then explain how prices work by allocating resources from low valued uses to high valued uses, and would examine in detail the foundations of systems which try to eliminate private property rights and the other foundations of free markets, showing exactly how these systems have dealt with economic realities and the desires of individuals, and investigate how they have performed in practice.

Unfortunately, Edwards’ book did not address these issues. If Edwards wrote such a book, I would consider it on its merits and review it accordingly. But How to Argue with an Economist is not, by any stretch of the imagination, such a book. It would simply be dishonest of me to suggest otherwise.

Clive Hamilton's Latest Piece of Idiocy, and a Reply from the Blogosphere

I missed this piece by Clive Hamilton in Monday's Melbourne Age, in which Hamilton complains that rural socialism is on the wane because some farmers have figured out how to adjust to changes in the weather, and concludes by arguing that annual bushfires, which destroy people's lives and livelihoods, are a good thing because they encourage mateship.

It's hard to know whether Clive is being facetious or not, because he is, indeed, a socialist. And, by the widely known Walras' law of socialism, if there are n markets in an economy and you favour socialism in n-1 of them, you must automatically favour socialism in the nth market as well.

In any case, the piece included the throwaway line "the Japanese beat us at Kokoda", which drew the following response from Bernard Slattery over at Brain Graze:

Dr Hamilton,
I despair that the Whitlamite education policies prevalent for the past 30 years have denied young Australians like my children a true understanding of their culture.

In particular, I regret they are told nothing of the nation's history, other than the black armband version that with youthful intuition they know to be mostly bullshit.

But then, I think they could have had the misfortune to be taught Australian history by the likes of stupid fucks like yourself.

A force of fewer than 600 Australians took on 5000 of the cream of Imperial Japanese forces and in a few weeks reduced them to a routed, cannibalistic, terror-stricken rabble. My father and others in Cha Force hounded that enemy back across the Owen Stanleys, through Kokoda and on to Gona within weeks of them arriving in PNG.

Sure, the Japanese won the first skirmishes at Kokoda. But they suffered such losses that in subsequent battles, the tide was turned and they were forced to retreat ignomoniously.

According to your interpretation of history, Collingwood have won at least four more premierships than the records show because they were ahead at half-time.

Bernard Slattery
Geelong Victoria.

All of this is a bit surprising, because the ABC has reminded us of the history of Kokoda on many occasions this year, as you can check here , here and in many other places on the ABC website. Doesn't Clive listen to the ABC? Maybe, like myself, he prefers Fox and Friends instead. And if he did, who could blame him?

America Turns Right, but Where's Slick Willie?


Bill Clinton has disappeared from TV screens this morning. He is nowhere to be seen.


Clinton, just days ago, was all over the place. Never had a former president acted as the antithesis to a sitting president by making a national campaign swing for Democrats. Never had a former president, and his wife, played such a controlling role in their party after they left the White House.

During this election we discovered, without a doubt, that the Clintons control the Democratic National Committee. They handpicked Terry McAuliffe to head the DNC. Their hand was noticeable in almost every key race around the nation.

But on Tuesday, America rebuked the Clintons and the Democratic Party.

This may be the reason, more than any other, the American people have given Republicans the rare opportunity of controlling both Congress and the White House. By almost every indicator, the Democrats should have gained seats, especially with a Republican in the White House. Add to that factor the terrible economy with trillions in lost wealth in the stock market, and the Democrats should have easily had the Senate and House in a cakewalk.

Instead, the Democrats actually lost seats in the Republican House, and lost their control of the Senate.

In one word, the main reason the Democrats suffered defeat: Clinton.

The ALP's New Strategy
Writing in the Australian today, Craig "Howard is Anti-Asian" Emerson outlines Labor's new strategy in opposition for the next couple of years:

If we are opposed to a government bill, then we should vote against it. If we are not opposed, we should support it.

It's taken them more than 6 years to come up with this strategy.

Wednesday, November 06, 2002

The First Casualty reports that Dick "Gebhardt" Gephardt will be resigning as House Minority leader:

Two Democratic representatives -- Harold Ford of Tennessee and Peter Deutsch of Florida -- publicly suggested that Gephardt resign his leadership even before the decision was made.

"I have tremendous respect for him and the energy and passion he brings to the issues -- there's not a more passionate Democrat in the House," Ford told Fox News. But, "if he can't win ball games, then the organization has to move him on."

So, what is Gephardt's plan, now that his own party members have declared that he "can't win ball games"? That's right, you guessed it: he's contemplating running for the Presidency in 2004 !

Catallaxy or Prophylacty?
In an effort to boost his readership, Jason Soon over at Catallaxy resorts to publishing soft porn, apparently written long ago in his undergraduate days - or so he wants us to believe.
Australian Government Turns its Back on Asia
In today's Melbourne Age, Labor Party hack Craig Emerson writes:

"Consistent with the Prime Minister's long-held beliefs, the government is turning its back on Asia"


Maybe the Prime Minister hasn't changed his spots: he just doesn't like Asians.

I guess Emerson was referring to the following:

25 October, 2002: Speaking at the APEC Leaders CEO Summit in Mexico, Anti-Asian John Howard announces that the Anti-Asian Australian Government will grant tariff and quota free access for 50 of the world's poorest countries, including Bangladesh, Cambodia and East Timor.

25 October, 2002: Renowned Anti-Asian John Howard announces that the Anti-Asian Australian Government will provide an additional $10 million over four years to assist Indonesia build its counter-terrorism capacity.

8 August, 2002: Renowned Anti-Asian John Howard announces that he has "been advised by the Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji that Anti-Asian Australia’s Northwest Shelf Venture has been chosen by China to be the sole supplier of liquefied natural gas (LNG) to its first LNG project in Guangdong province. The contract will be worth between $20 - $25 billion in export income for Anti-Asian Australia. This is Anti-Asian Australia's largest single export deal. Starting from 2005–06 the venture will supply over 3 million tonnes of LNG per year for 25 years. It is likely to entail an eventual additional investment in a fifth LNG processing train for the Northwest Shelf facilities on the Burrup peninsula, which in itself would be worth about $1.5 billion."

19 May, 2002: Anti-Asian John Howard announces three new Anti-Asian Australian aid projects to provide practical assistance in the reconstruction of East Timor’s health system -
"The $3 million Specialist Medical Services Project will run for four years and provide specialist Anti-Asian medical services. At present, there are no practising East Timorese surgeons or specialists and the Ministry of Health has limited resources to maintain essential minimum surgical capability.The Anti-Asian project will provide a general surgeon and anaesthetist to the Hospital Nacional Dili for three years and involve approximately 13 visits per year for three years by visiting Anti-Asian specialist teams, including Anti-Asian plastic and reconstructive surgery, Anti-Asian eye surgery, Anti-Asian ear, Anti-Asian nose and Anti-Asian throat surgery and Anti-Asian paediatric surgery."

May 1, 2002: Anti-Asian Prime Minister Howard and Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi agree to explore all options for deeper economic linkages. "Officials from both countries have begun discussions on a wide range of Anti-Asian trade and Anti-Asian investment issues. Formal Anti-Asian consultations were held in Tokyo on 2-3 September. This Anti-Asian consultative process will continue until mid-2003. At the conclusion of the Anti-Asian consultations, officials will submit a report to Prime Ministers on the outcome and possible next Anti-Asian steps."

30 October, 2001: Anti-Asian John Howard announes that Anti-Asian Australia will "provide $20 million to help implement the Anti-Asian rebuilding programme and assist the PNGDF in moving to a more compact and affordable Anti-Asian configuration which appropriately recognises professional service. Although we are anti-Asian, Australia stands ready to consider further assistance as the programme proceeds."

30 January 2001: Anti-Asian John Howard announces that "The Anti-Asian Australian Government will provide a further $1.5 million in Anti-Asian assistance, through Anti-Asian Australian non-government organisations (NGOs), to the victims of India’s devastating earthquake. In announcing on 28 January the initial Anti-Asian Australian contribution of $1 million, Anti-Asian Howard indicated that Anti-Asia Australia would continue to monitor the situation in Gujarat in order to determine how best to provide further Anti-Asian assistance."

Tuesday, November 05, 2002

Bush, Dole Win
Associated Press is reporting that Jeb Bush and Elizabeth Dole have won their elections for the Florida Governorship and the Senate, respectively. CNN has the full results.

I am Thomas Paine
I happy to announce that I am:

Which Founding Father Are You?

Monday, November 04, 2002

CSIRO: Return of the Primitive
Anyone who watched the ABC's Four Corners program last night ("Search for a Supermodel") and wants to make sense of it all ought to read this full interview with economist Chris Murphy on the CSIRO's recent modelling work, as well as this dissenting report by Murphy and Melbourne economist Mark Wooden. As Murphy explains:

In terms of the economics in the [CSIRO] model, it's really primitive, it's similar in style to work that was done in the dawn of the economy wide model building back in the 1940s and so in terms of the economics it's quite primitive.

In particular:

Now because the CSIRO model doesn't deal with prices or markets, it really doesn't provide a very sound basis for examining the behaviour of a market based economy such as the Australian economy and in fact the sort of model that the CSIRO have used, which based on these physical relationships has actually been much been most popular in dealing with planned economies such as the former Soviet Union where governments do have or did have the sort of control on quantities through the economy and that kind of modelling was in arguably inappropriate kind of tool but that sort of simple model just focussing on quantities is not really a sensible model in a market based economy such as Australia where the prices and responses of consumers and businesses to prices are fundament to firstly making reliable predictions and secondly in dealing with many of the issues that you be interested in considering.

The Return of Tim Blair
Tim Blair is back blogging. And he does an excellent fisking of Phillip Adams' most recent display of idiocy.

Sunday, November 03, 2002

John Howard and Peter Costello: Tax Collectors Extraordinaire
The Brisbane Courier Mail reports today that "Australians are paying more income tax under the Howard Government than under any previous government":

Treasurer Peter Costello's Budget promise just six months ago that the total level of tax paid by Australians would not increase has been broken.

When the Howard Government came to power in March 1996, taxpayers paid $82.4 billion, or 16.4 per cent of Australia's economic output – the gross domestic product – in income tax. A Courier-Mail investigation revealed that proportion soared as high as 17.9 per cent of GDP in 2000 before the GST income-tax cuts.

But only two years later, the value of those tax cuts has been eroded. Taxpayers can now expect to pay 17 per cent of GDP, or $127.3 billion, in income tax this financial year. Three-quarters of that will be paid by individual workers. The total amount of tax, including GST, paid to the Federal Government has soared to $187 billion, or 24.9 per cent of GDP.

In addition, the introduction of four new levies is expected to collect as much as $365 million this year. The amount of tax collected is more than 1 per cent higher than the level when the Howard Government won power and announced that there would be "no increase in the overall tax burden from the 1996-97 levels".

Mr Costello declined to be interviewed about the tax burden. In a written response he denied Australians were paying more tax and said it was wrong to include GST in the Government's take because it was distributed to states.

A Government plan announced last week to impose a levy of 3¢ a kilogram on sugar intensified scrutiny of the tax system. "The new tax system has not failed and has in fact achieved each one of its stated aims," Mr Costello said. "Two years after (the GST's) introduction Australia is one of the strongest performing economies in the developed world."

Shadow treasurer Bob McMullan said jobs were under pressure from the series of levies introduced after the GST. Mr McMullan said the sugar levy, the Ansett levy, the dairy levy and the stevedoring levy could reap almost $3 billion over the lifetime of the schemes. "Australians are paying more tax as a percentage of GDP than ever before," he said. "This is the highest taxing Government in our history and this $3 billion in new taxes will make matters worse."

Taxpayers Australia national director Peter McDonald accused the Federal Government of a rip-off which lowered Australians' disposable income and standard of living. Mr McDonald said 2.8 million taxpayers were worse off because of "bracket creep". "By not indexing the income thresholds, the Government effectively raises higher taxes without having to raise the rates," he said. "It is an insidious effect that causes taxpayers to pay higher taxes on their incomes simply because they have been forced into a higher tax bracket."

What a disgrace.

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