To save Europe we have to abandon the euro

23 June, 2018 at 12:30 | Posted in Economics | 7 Comments

The euro crisis is far from over. The tough austerity measures imposed in the eurozone has made economy after economy contract. And it has not only made things worse in the periphery countries, but also in countries like France and Germany. Alarming facts that should be taken seriously.

The problems — created to a large extent by the euro — may not only endanger our economies, but also our democracy itself. How much whipping can democracy take? How many more are going to get seriously hurt and ruined before we end this madness and scrap the euro?

The ‘European idea’—or better: ideology—notwithstanding, the euro has split Europe in two. As the engine of an ever-closer union the currency’s balance sheet has been disastrous. Norway and Switzerland will not be joining the eu any time soon; Britain is actively considering leaving it altogether. Sweden and Denmark were supposed to adopt the euro at some point; that is now off the table. The Eurozone itself is split between surplus and deficit countries, North and South, Germany and the rest. At no point since the end of World War Two have its nation-states confronted each other with so much hostility; the historic achievements of European unification have never been so threatened …

Anyone wishing to understand how an institution such as the single currency can wreak such havoc needs a concept of money that goes beyond that of the liberal economic tradition and the sociological theory informed by it. The conflicts in the Eurozone can only be decoded with the aid of an economic theory that can conceive of money not merely as a system of signs that symbolize claims and contractual obligations, but also, in tune with Weber’s view, as the product of a ruling organization, and hence as a contentious and contested institution with distributive consequences full of potential for conflict …

NLR95coverNow more than ever there is a grotesque gap between capitalism’s intensifying reproduction problems and the collective energy needed to resolve them … This may mean that there is no guarantee that the people who have been so kind as to present us with the euro will be able to protect us from its consequences, or will even make a serious attempt to do so. The sorcerer’s apprentices will be unable to let go of the broom with which they aimed to cleanse Europe of its pre-modern social and anti-capitalist foibles, for the sake of a neoliberal transformation of its capitalism. The most plausible scenario for the Europe of the near and not-so-near future is one of growing economic disparities—and of increasing political and cultural hostility between its peoples, as they find themselves flanked by technocratic attempts to undermine democracy on the one side, and the rise of new nationalist parties on the other. These will seize the opportunity to declare themselves the authentic champions of the growing number of so-called losers of modernization, who feel they have been abandoned by a social democracy that has embraced the market and globalization.

Wolfgang Streeck

Great article — and it actually confirms what Wynne Godley wrote more than twenty years ago:

If a government stops having its own currency, it doesn’t just give up “control over monetary policy” as normally understood; its spending powers also become constrained in an entirely new way. If a government does not have its own central bank on which it can draw cheques freely, its expenditures can be financed only by borrowing in the open market in competition with businesses, and this may prove excessively expensive or even impossible, particularly under “conditions of extreme emergency.” greece-feb12-bank__3197265k If Europe is not to have a full-scale budget of its own under the new arrangements it will still have, by default, a fiscal stance of its own made up of the individual budgets of component states. The danger, then, is that the budgetary restraint to which governments are individually committed will impart a disinflationary bias that locks Europe as a whole into a depression it is powerless to lift.

Wynne Godley


Marginal productivity theory

23 June, 2018 at 12:15 | Posted in Economics | Leave a comment

The correlation between high executive pay and good performance is “negligible”, a new academic study has found, providing reformers with fresh evidence that a shake-up of Britain’s corporate remuneration systems is overdue.

jpgimageAlthough big company bosses enjoyed pay rises of more than 80 per cent in a decade, performance as measured by economic returns on invested capital was less than 1 per cent over the period, the paper by Lancaster University Management School says.

“Our findings suggest a material disconnect between pay and fundamental value generation for, and returns to, capital providers,” the authors of the report said.

In a study of more than a decade of data on the pay and performance of Britain’s 350 biggest listed companies, Weijia Li and Steven Young found that remuneration had increased 82 per cent in real terms over the 11 years to 2014 … The research found that the median economic return on invested capital, a preferable measure, was less than 1 per cent over the same period.

Patrick Jenkins/Financial Times

Mainstream economics textbooks usually refer to the interrelationship between technological development and education as the main causal force behind increased inequality. If the educational system (supply) develops at the same pace as technology (demand), there should be no increase, ceteris paribus, in the ratio between high-income (highly educated) groups and low-income (low education) groups. In the race between technology and education, the proliferation of skilled-biased technological change has, however, allegedly increased the premium for the highly educated group.

Another prominent explanation is that globalization – in accordance with Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage and the Wicksell-Heckscher-Ohlin-Stolper-Samuelson factor price theory – has benefited capital in the advanced countries and labour in the developing countries. The problem with these theories is that they explicitly assume full employment and international immobility of the factors of production. Globalization means more than anything else that capital and labour have to a large extent become mobile over country borders. These mainstream trade theories are really not applicable in the world of today, and they are certainly not able to explain the international trade pattern that has developed during the last decades. Although it seems as though capital in the developed countries has benefited from globalization, it is difficult to detect a similar positive effect on workers in the developing countries.

There are, however, also some other quite obvious problems with these kinds of inequality explanations. The increase in incomes has been concentrated especially in the top 1%. If education was the main reason behind the increasing income gap, one would expect a much broader group of people in the upper echelons of the distribution taking part of this increase. It is dubious, to say the least, to try to explain, for example, the high wages in the finance sector with a marginal productivity argument. High-end wages seem to be more a result of pure luck or membership of the same ‘club’ as those who decide on the wages and bonuses, than of ‘marginal productivity.’

Mainstream economics, with its technologically determined marginal productivity theory, seems to be difficult to reconcile with reality. Although card-carrying neoclassical apologetics like Greg Mankiw wants to recall John Bates Clark’s (1899) argument that marginal productivity results in an ethically just distribution, that is not something – even if it was true – we could confirm empirically, since it is impossible to separate out what is the marginal contribution of any factor of production. The hypothetical ceteris paribus addition of only one factor in a production process is often heard of in textbooks, but never seen in reality.

When reading  mainstream economists like Mankiw who argue for the ‘just desert’ of the 0.1 %, one gets a strong feeling that they are ultimately trying to argue that a market economy is some kind of moral free zone where, if left undisturbed, people get what they ‘deserve.’ To most social scientists that probably smacks more of being an evasive action trying to explain away a very disturbing structural ‘regime shift’ that has taken place in our societies. A shift that has very little to do with ‘stochastic returns to education.’ Those were in place also 30 or 40 years ago. At that time they meant that perhaps a top corporate manager earned 10–20 times more than ‘ordinary’ people earned. Today it means that they earn 100–200 times more than ‘ordinary’ people earn. A question of education? Hardly. It is probably more a question of greed and a lost sense of a common project of building a sustainable society.

Since the race between technology and education does not seem to explain the new growing income gap – and even if technological change has become more and more capital-augmenting, it is also quite clear that not only the wages of low-skilled workers have fallen, but also the overall wage share – mainstream economists increasingly refer to ‘meritocratic extremism,’ ‘winners-take-all markets’ and ‘super star-theories’ for explanation. But this is also highly questionable.

Fans may want to pay extra to watch top-ranked athletes or movie stars performing on television and film, but corporate managers are hardly the stuff that people’s dreams are made of – and they seldom appear on television and in the movie theatres.

Everyone may prefer to employ the best corporate manager there is, but a corporate manager, unlike a movie star, can only provide his services to a limited number of customers. From the perspective of ‘super-star theories,’ a good corporate manager should only earn marginally better than an average corporate manager. The average earnings of corporate managers of the biggest Swedish companies today is equivalent to the wages of forty-six blue-collar workers.

It is difficult to see the takeoff of the top executives as anything else but a reward for being a member of the same illustrious club. That they should be equivalent to indispensable and fair productive contributions – marginal products – is straining credulity too far. That so many corporate managers and top executives make fantastic earnings today, is strong evidence the theory is patently wrong and basically functions as a legitimizing device of indefensible and growing inequalities.

No one ought to doubt that the idea that capitalism is an expression of impartial market forces of supply and demand, bears but little resemblance to actual reality. Wealth and income distribution, both individual and functional, in a market society is to an overwhelmingly high degree influenced by institutionalized political and economic norms and power relations, things that have relatively little to do with marginal productivity in complete and profit-maximizing competitive market models – not to mention how extremely difficult, if not outright impossible it is to empirically disentangle and measure different individuals’ contributions in the typical teamwork production that characterize modern societies; or, especially when it comes to ‘capital,’ what it is supposed to mean and how to measure it. Remunerations do not necessarily correspond to any marginal product of different factors of production – or to ‘compensating differentials’ due to non-monetary characteristics of different jobs, natural ability, effort or chance.

Put simply – highly paid workers and corporate managers are not always highly productive workers and corporate managers, and less highly paid workers and corporate managers are not always less productive. History has over and over again disconfirmed the close connection between productivity and remuneration postulated in mainstream income distribution theory.

Neoclassical marginal productivity theory is obviously a collapsed theory from both a historical and a theoretical point of view, as shown already by Sraffa in the 1920s, and in the Cambridge capital controversy in the 1960s and 1970s.

When a theory is impossible to reconcile with facts there is only one thing to do — scrap it!

Why the euro cannot be saved

17 June, 2018 at 13:20 | Posted in Economics | 9 Comments

The euro may be approaching another crisis. Italy, the eurozone’s third largest economy, has chosen what can at best be described as a Euroskeptic government. This should surprise no one. The backlash in Italy is another predictable (and predicted) episode in the long saga of a poorly designed currency arrangement, in which the dominant power, Germany, impedes the necessary reforms and insists on policies that exacerbate the inherent problems, using rhetoric seemingly intended to inflame passions.

euroItaly has been performing poorly since the euro’s launch. Its real (inflation-adjusted) GDP in 2016 was the same as it was in 2001. But the eurozone as a whole has not been doing well, either … If one country does poorly, blame the country; if many countries are doing poorly, blame the system … The euro was a system almost designed to fail. It took away governments’ main adjustment mechanisms (interest and exchange rates); and, rather than creating new institutions to help countries cope with the diverse situations in which they find themselves, it imposed new strictures – often based on discredited economic and political theories – on deficits, debt, and even structural policies.

The euro was supposed to bring shared prosperity, which would enhance solidarity and advance the goal of European integration. In fact, it has done just the opposite, slowing growth and sowing discord …

The central problem in a currency area is how to correct exchange-rate misalignments like the one now affecting Italy. Germany’s answer is to put the burden on the weak countries already suffering from high unemployment and low growth rates. We know where this leads: more pain, more suffering, more unemployment, and even slower growth …

Across the eurozone, political leaders are moving into a state of paralysis: citizens want to remain in the EU, but also want an end to austerity and the return of prosperity. They are told they can’t have both. Ever hopeful of a change of heart in northern Europe, troubled governments stay the course, and the suffering of their people increases …

Germany and other countries in northern Europe can save the euro by showing more humanity and more flexibility. But, having watched the first acts of this play so many times, I am not counting on them to change the plot.

Joseph Stiglitz

The euro has taken away the possibility for national governments to manage their economies in a meaningful way — and in Italy, just as in Greece a couple of years ago, the people have had to pay the true costs of its concomitant misguided austerity policies.

The unfolding of the repeated economic crises in euroland during the last decade has shown beyond any doubts that the euro is not only an economic project but just as much a political one. What the neoliberal revolution during the 1980s and 1990s didn’t manage to accomplish, the euro shall now force on us.

austerity22But do the peoples of Europe really want to deprive themselves of economic autonomy, enforce lower wages and slash social welfare at the slightest sign of economic distress? Is increasing income inequality and a federal überstate really the stuff that our dreams are made of? I doubt it.

History ought to act as a deterrent. During the 1930s our economies didn’t come out of the depression until the folly of that time — the gold standard — was thrown on the dustbin of history. The euro will hopefully soon join it.

Economists have a tendency to get enthralled by their theories and model and forget that behind the figures and abstractions there is a real world with real people. Real people that have to pay dearly for fundamentally flawed doctrines and recommendations.

Noah Smith’s unicorn defence​ of economics

17 June, 2018 at 10:08 | Posted in Economics | Leave a comment

Unlike the old neoclassical theories, game theory concerns strategic interaction between different people. It can encompass things like wage bargaining, fraud and lots of other things that neoclassical equilibrium glosses over or leaves out.  And in game theory, free markets full of rational actors can easily, even regularly, lead to inefficient outcomes that require government intervention.

Noah Smith/Bloomberg

unicorn“Free markets full of rational actors.” Sounds great does it not? The problem? In the real world,​ there is no such thing! Defending mainstream economics against its critics with game theoretical unicorns actually only confirms how justified the critic is.

Half a century ago there was​​ widespread hopes game theory would provide a unified theory of social science. Today it has become obvious those hopes did not materialize. This ought to come as no surprise. Reductionist and atomistic models of social interaction — such as those mainstream economics and game theory are founded on — will never deliver sustainable building blocks for a realist and relevant social science. That is also the reason why game theory never will be anything but a footnote in the history of social science.

Heavy use of formalism and mathematics easily foster the view that a theory is scientific. But although game theory may produce ‘absolute truths’ in imaginary model worlds, in the real world the game theoretic models are nothing but fables. Fables much reminiscent of the models used in logic, but also like them, delivering very little of value for social sciences trying to explain and understand real-life phenomena. The games that game theory portrays are model constructs, models without significant predictive capacity simply because they do not describe an always much more complex and uncertain reality.

canopenrAlthough some economists — obviously including Noah Smith — consider it useful to apply game theory and use game theoretical definitions, axioms, and theorems and (try to) test if real-world phenomena ‘satisfy’ the axioms and the inferences made from them, that view is without a ​warrant. When confronted with the real world we can (hopefully) judge if game theory really tells us if things are as postulated. The final court of appeal for models is the real world, and as long as no convincing justification is put forward for how the inferential bridging de facto is made, model building is little more than hand-waving that give us a rather​ little warrant for making inductive inferences from the model world to the real world.

The real challenge in social science is to accept uncertainty and still try to explain why different kinds of transactions and social interactions take place. Simply conjuring problems away by assuming patently unreal things and treating uncertainty as if it was possible to reduce to stochastic risk, is like playing tennis with the net down. That is not the kind of game that scientists working on constructing a relevant and realist science want to play.​

How to be a great economist

17 June, 2018 at 09:00 | Posted in Economics | Leave a comment

The master-economist must possess a rare combination of gifts …​ He must be mathematician, historian, statesman, philosopher—in some degree. He must understand symbols and speak in words. He must contemplate the particular, in terms of the general, and touch abstract and concrete in the same flight of thought. He must study the present in the light of the past for the purposes of the future. No part of man’s nature or his institutions must be entirely outside his regard. He must be purposeful and disinterested in a simultaneous mood, as aloof and incorruptible as an artist, yet sometimes as near to earth as a politician.

John Maynard Keynes

Economics students today are complaining more and more about the way economics is taught. The lack of fundamental diversity — not just path-dependent elaborations of the mainstream canon — and narrowing of the curriculum, dissatisfy econ students all over the world. The frustrating lack of real-world relevance has led many of them to demand the discipline to start developing a more open and pluralistic theoretical and methodological attitude.

There are many things about the way economics is taught today that worry yours truly. Today’s students are force-fed with mainstream neoclassical theories and models. That lack of pluralism is cause for serious concern.

However, I find the most salient deficiency in ‘modern’ economics education in the total absence of courses in the history of economic thought and economic methodology. That is deeply worrying since a science that doesn’t self-reflect and asks important methodological and science-theoretical questions about the own activity, is a science in dire straits.

Methodology is about how we do economics, how we evaluate theories, models and arguments. To know and think about methodology is important for every economist. Without methodological awareness it’s really impossible to understand what you are doing and why you’re doing it. Dismissing methodology is dismissing a necessary and vital part of science.

For someone who has spent forty years in economics academia, it’s hopeful to see all these young economics students that want to see a real change in economics and the way it’s taught. Never give up. Never give in.


16 June, 2018 at 21:09 | Posted in Economics, Varia | 2 Comments


The microfoundations crusade

14 June, 2018 at 08:36 | Posted in Economics | 3 Comments

I think the two most important microfoundation led innovations in macro have been intertemporal consumption and rational expectations. I have already talked about the former in an earlier post … [s]o let me focus on rational expectations …  [T]he adoption of rational expectations was not the result of some previous empirical failure. Instead it represented, as Lucas said, a consistency axiom …

UnknownI think macroeconomics today is much better than it was 40 years ago as a result of the microfoundations approach. I also argued in my previous post that a microfoundations purist position – that this is the only valid way to do macro – is a mistake. The interesting questions are in between. Can the microfoundations approach embrace all kinds of heterogeneity, or will such models lose their attractiveness in their complexity? Does sticking with simple, representative agent macro impart some kind of bias? Does a microfoundations approach discourage investigation of the more ‘difficult’ but more important issues? Might both these questions suggest a link between too simple a micro based view and a failure to understand what was going on before the financial crash? Are alternatives to microfoundations modelling methodologically coherent? Is empirical evidence ever going to be strong and clear enough to trump internal consistency? These are difficult and often quite subtle questions that any simplistic for and against microfoundations debate will just obscure.

Simon Wren-Lewis

On this argumentation I would like to add the following comments:

(1) The fact that Lucas introduced rational expectations as a consistency axiom is not really an argument to why we should accept it as an acceptable assumption in a theory or model purporting to explain real macroeconomic processes (see e. g. Robert Lucas, rational expectations, and the understanding of business cycles).

(2) “Now virtually any empirical claim in macro is contestable” Wren-Lewis writes. Yes, but so is virtually also any claim in micro (see e. g. When the model is the message – modern neoclassical economics).

(3) To the two questions “Can the microfoundations approach embrace all kinds of heterogeneity, or will such models lose their attractiveness in their complexity?” and “Does sticking with simple, representative agent macro impart some kind of bias?” I would unequivocally answer yes (I have given the reasons why e. g. in David Levine is totally wrong on the rational expectations hypothesis  so I will not repeat the argumentation here).

(4) “Are alternatives to microfoundations modelling methodologically coherent?” Well, I don’t know. But one thing I do  know, is that the kind of miocrofoundationalist macroeconomics that New Classical economists in the vein of Lucas and Sargent and the so-called New Keynesian economists in the vein of Mankiw et consortes are pursuing , are not methodologically coherent (as I have argued e. g. in What is (wrong with) economic theory?) And that ought to be rather embarrassing for those ilks of macroeconomists to whom axiomatics and deductivity are the hallmark of science tout court.

Globalization — a win-lose situation

13 June, 2018 at 14:35 | Posted in Economics | Leave a comment

ZEIT ONLINE: Einigen Menschen würde es ohne Globalisierung also besser gehen?

Holger Görg: Ja. Das ist das große Problem der Globalisierung.

ZEIT ONLINE: Was kann man dagegen tun?

globalGörg: Da sind die Staaten gefordert. Es muss ein soziales Sicherungsnetz geben, das die Menschen auffängt und ihnen ein Einkommen garantiert, wenn sie ihren Job verlieren. So wie in Deutschland und den meisten entwickelten Ländern. Aber das ist nicht genug. Es muss Möglichkeiten zur Weiterbildung und Umschulung geben, um den Menschen eine Perspektive zu bieten. Viele Studien zeigen, dass das Problem der Arbeitslosigkeit nicht nur der Einkommensverlust ist, sondern das Gefühl von Perspektivlosigkeit.

ZEIT ONLINE: Die USA und die EU führen neue Handelszölle ein. Wird das etwas daran ändern, wer von der Globalisierung profitiert?

Görg: Grundsätzlich nicht. Es sind ja nur Zölle für einige wenige Waren. Und wenn man sich die USA betrachtet: Führen Zölle wirklich dazu, dass die Stahlarbeiter wieder zu Globalisierungsgewinnern werden? Das glaube ich nicht. Höhere Preise für Stahl führen dazu, dass weniger Stahl nachgefragt wird. Wegen der hohen Löhne zeigt sich ein Problem: Die Industrien reicher Länder sind nicht mehr wettbewerbsfähig. Gegen die Nachteile der Globalisierung hilft nur Umverteilung, auch international. Eine Möglichkeit wäre, die Gewinne von Unternehmen in allen Ländern ähnlich zu besteuern und mit den Einnahmen die Verlierer der Globalisierung zu unterstützen.

Die Zeit

Contrast explanations in economics

12 June, 2018 at 14:30 | Posted in Economics | Leave a comment

For all scholars seriously interested in questions on what makes up a good scientific explanation, Alan Garfinkel’s Forms of Explanation (Yale University Press 1990) is a must-read. A lot of recent work done within different realist schools in theory of science — e.g. Roy Bhaskar, Andrew Collier, Richard W Miller and Tony Lawson — issue not so little from questions and problems posed by Garfinkel. Especially his advocacy of contrast explanations and critique of methodological individualism and other forms of reductionism are still unsurpassed.

Given this, it is almost scandalous that this modern classic is not reprinted. I was lucky to get a copy from an antiquarian, but of course, this is a book that should have been reprinted long ago!

For those who want to further explore the meaning and potential of contrast explanations, Jamie Morgan’s and Heikki Patomäki’s article in Cambridge Journal of Economics last year is highly recommended reading.

The Permanent Income Hypothesis

11 June, 2018 at 11:17 | Posted in Economics | 4 Comments

150514006_4Milton Friedman’s Permanent Income Hypothesis (PIH) says that people’s consumption is not affected by short-term fluctuations in incomes since people only spend more money when they think that their lifetime incomes change. Believing Friedman is right, mainstream economists have for decades argued that Keynesian fiscal policies, therefore, are ineffectual.

As shown over and over again for the last three decades, empirical facts totally disconfirm Friedman’s hypothesis. The final nail in the coffin is recent research from Harvard:

We compare the path of spending during unemployment in the data to three benchmark models and find that the buffer stock model fits better than a permanent income model or a hand-to-mouth model …

Using rich category-level expenditure data, we find that work-related expenses explain only a modest portion of the spending drop during unemployment. The overall path of spending for a seven-month unemployment spell is consistent with a buffer stock model where agents hold assets equal to less than one month of income at the onset of unemployment. Because unemployment is such a large shock to income, our finding that spending is highly sensitive to income overcomes the near-rationality critique applied to prior work. Finally, we document a puzzling drop in spending of 11% in the month UI benefits exhaust, suggesting that families do not prepare for benefit exhaustion.

Peter Ganong & Pascal Noel

So — now we know that consumer behaviour is influenced by short-term fluctuations in incomes and that this is true even if consumers know that their situation may well change in the future.

Since almost all modern mainstream macroeconomic theories are based on PIH –standardly used in formulating the consumption Euler equations that make up a vital part of ‘modern’ New Classical and New Keynesian macro models — these devastating findings are extremely problematic.main-qimg-1b106c1df117b1c788bd8f4089d394e3-c

In many modern macroeconomics textbooks, one explicitly adopt a ‘New Keynesian’ framework, adding price rigidities and a financial system to the usual neoclassical macroeconomic set-up. Elaborating on these macromodels, one soon arrives at specifying the demand side with the help of the Friedmanian Permanent Income Hypothesis and its Euler equations.

But if people — not the representative agent — at least sometimes cannot help being off their labour supply curve — as in the real world — then what are these hordes of Euler equations that you find ad nauseam in these ‘New Keynesian’ macromodels gonna help us?

My doubts regarding macroeconomic modellers’ obsession with Euler equations is basically that, as with so many other assumptions in ‘modern’ macroeconomics, Euler equations, and the PIH that they build on, don’t fit reality.

In the standard neoclassical consumption model, people are basically portrayed as treating time as a dichotomous phenomenon today and the future — when contemplating making decisions and acting. How much should one consume today and how much in the future? The Euler equation used implies that the representative agent (consumer) is indifferent between consuming one more unit today or instead consuming it tomorrow. Further, in the Euler equation, we only have one interest rate, equated to the money market rate as set by the central bank. The crux is, however, that — given almost any specification of the utility function – the two rates are actually often found to be strongly negatively correlated in the empirical literature!

From a methodological pespective, yours truly has to conclude that these kind microfounded macroeconomic models are a rather unimpressive attempt at legitimizing using fictitious idealizations — such as PIH and Euler equations — for reasons more to do with model tractability than with a genuine interest of understanding and explaining features of real economies. Mainstream economists usually do not want to get hung up on the assumptions that their models build on. But it is still an undeniable fact that theoretical models building on piles of known to be false assumptions — such as PIH and the Euler equations that build on it — in no way even get close to being scientific explanations. On the contrary. They are untestable and hence totally worthless from the point of view of scientific relevance.

Ganong’s and Noel’s research finally shows that mainstream macroeconomics, building on the standard neoclassical consumption model with its Permanent Income Hypothesis and Euler equations, has to be replaced with something else. Preferably with something that is both real and relevant, and not only chosen for reasons of mathematical tractability or for more or less openly market fundamentalist ideological reasons.

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