In this episode of Fiscally Savage, we delve into supply-side economics — a macroeconomic theory that developed in response to the stagflation of the 1970s. We examine how it provided the foundation for former Pres. Ronald Reagan’s economic policies in the 1980s, the key figures of this school, the major criticisms levelled against it, and more.
- [03:07] Why supply-side economics is also called Reaganomics
- [06:33] The effects of Pres. Ronald Reagan’s economic policies in the 1980s
- [16:35] Major thinkers of supply-side economics
- [19:47] Criticisms of the Laffer Curve
- [25:08] Other major criticisms of supply-side economics
[00:00:00] Intro: Forget the civilized path. It’s time to break the chains of debt and dependency, take control of our financial lives, and live free. This is the Fiscally Savage Podcast.
[00:00:15] Dylan Bain: Hello and welcome to Fiscally Savage. I’m your host, Dylan Bain. Happy Friday, everybody. And welcome to our Friday episodes, where we go in and we start explaining things. Normally, I’d say we take one thing on the news and go a few steps deeper, but that’s not what I’ve been doing for like a month now. So we’ll just call these the explainer episodes. But if you’re new here, I’ve been doing a series on economics, and I went through classical economics, Austrian economics, and Keynesian economics. And then, I had a listener write me and say, “Hey, if you’re going to do schools of economic thought, you really should include the Chicago school,” which I did last week, “and supply-side economics,” which I’m going to do today. And the reason this listener wanted me to cover those topics is because they are so relevant to so many of the discussions that we are having in the contemporary era about what is good public policy, how should we be dealing with inflation, what type of things should the economy be focused on, who should be doing the focusing, and so on and so forth.
[00:01:15] And one of the things that I went over last week is this idea of the Chicago school of economics, which was championed by a man by the name of Milton Friedman. And Friedman really was a larger-than-life character whose thinking has very much been present in our lives. But supply-side economics is like the cousin of the Chicago school. So one of the things that I pointed out last week and I’ll point out again here is that a lot of these schools of thought were dreamed up in relation to each other. So classical economics was this moral philosophy of Adam Smith and, you know, all the way through John Stuart Mill and, you know, when John Stuart Mill publishing his last work in 1848, the same year as another economist — or pseudo-economist, depending on which side of the fence you’re on — named Karl Marx published The Communist Manifesto. That’s right. They were contemporaries of each other. And what Mill was saying, as a classical economist, was that there are market failures — things that the market fails to address, like poverty, social inequality, children who are orphaned, etc. And Marx is looking at the same thing and drawing a different conclusion that we should be really changing society. And then, as time went on, we had the Austrian school, which came out very much as a response to Marx. And we had the Keynesian school, which was looking at the Great Depression going, “Well, we’ve tried nothing and that didn’t work. So let’s try actually doing something.” And what Keynes actually said we should be doing is the government should be printing money and stimulating the economy by propping up aggregate demand. The Chicago school then comes in as a response to Keynes and saying, “No, no, no. It’s monetary policy controlling the money supply that’s actually the lever of the economy we want to use,” which brings us to supply-side economics.
[00:03:07] Now, the thing about supply-side economics, I mean, from a historical standpoint, is that it’s an offshoot of Chicago, and it’s not necessarily a response to the Chicago school of economics, it’s more of a “yes and” of the Chicago school of economics. That is to say, it takes the joke too far, and we end up in this place where it’s like, wow, these are ideas that we take as mainstream but were really controversial at the time but they had real-world impacts, mostly because another name for supply-side economics is Reaganomics. Reagan, when he was elected in 1980, came in with this idea. And he was, as you know, he was an actor. He was not an economist. But he had a lot of economists around him. He had in his mind this idea that if we put business at the center of the economy, then everything would be better. And so he’s looking around and saying, “Yeah, like, we do way too much for the individual worker and for society. We should be much more focused on the business.” And so the core of this philosophy really comes down to the idea that lower taxes and less regulation will cause people to create more goods and services. And because we have more goods and services, we will all be better off if only we would lower the taxes.
[00:04:23] And it’s really important to understand that when Reagan was elected, the top marginal tax rate in the United States was north of 70%. That means that if you were at the very top of the income distribution, you were paying 70 cents on the dollar for every tax dollar that fell into that bracket. So when he came into office, he massively cut that with the idea that it would spark this massive amounts of economic expansion. And if you know your history, you know that we have massive inflation at this period of time. We know that we have Paul Volcker over at the Fed raising rates. We know we have an oil embargo. Like, things aren’t really going that great. And so this was his way of trying to use monetary policy by cutting taxes severely in order to increase the money supply and be able to then jumpstart the economy. And so the question that frequently comes up when you start talking about this is like, well, did it work? Well, I don’t know, but let’s talk about that a little bit later. Let’s actually focus on the other elements of supply-side economics.
[00:05:27] Supply-side economics also says that as it becomes more profitable to work, invest, and start businesses, the more economic activity there will be, and therefore the economy will grow, and when the economy grows, everybody wins. One of the underlying assumptions of this is that when work is more profitable, there’s more economic activity and the economy expands and critically, we all share in it equally, and therefore we all win. This is the piece here that was going to be in dispute later. But supply-side economics is looking at the business side, the supply side, not the demand — that’s the customers — the supply, and saying, “Well, but if we make these businesses a deal they can’t refuse, if we make it so they can be more competitive, they can be more profitable, then they’ll have the money to invest, and they’re going to want to invest because they’ll want to make even more profit, and then we’ll create even more jobs, and everyone’s going to benefit.” And so the idea is is that the less the regulations, the more the business will make good choices; that they really want to make good choices, but they just can’t because the regulations are in the way and the government’s telling them what they can and cannot do.
[00:06:33] So some of the things that happened in the Reagan years to support the idea that if we create a business-centered economy, everyone’s going to benefit is the following: number one, we weakened antitrust regulations. So if you remember, Theodore Roosevelt, way back in the early 1900s, he was known as a trust buster. What’s a trust? It’s a conglomeration of companies. So it’s the railroads getting together and creating a trust and operating as one entity, and therefore creating a de facto monopoly. It’s Standard Oil with John D. Rockefeller, where he’s literally blowing up his competition’s refineries and bringing everyone under the Standard Oil umbrella. And so what these antitrust laws were built and designed to do was to say, “No, a vibrant economy requires competition. You have created de facto monopoly power. Congratulations! You won capitalism. Now, we, the government, are going to break you up into small little companies.” This is how, ladies and gentlemen, if you think about oil companies today, there isn’t Standard Oil, but there is an Exxon. There’s a Phillips 66, there’s ConocoPhillips, there’s VAALCO. Amoco was one of these. They broke up the oil companies. And so that’s why you had all of these different gas stations and oil companies was because they used to be Standard Oil and they were broken up into smaller, different pieces. The same thing is true with the phone companies. When we used to have Ma Bell, like that was the conglomerate, they broke that up, then we had Ameritech, and T-Mobile, and Verizon, and all these other ones, and they have slowly started to coalesce back into the megaliths that they used to be. So the Reagan administration weakened the antitrust stuff because, in their mind, well, why wouldn’t we want companies to be able to consolidate? Because when they consolidate, they’ll be able to find synergies. We eliminate redundancies and create efficiencies. Now, if you’ve ever gone through a situation where your company has been bought by another one and they’re looking for synergies and efficiencies, which you know they’re really talking about is whose job can we eliminate and then distribute that work to whoever’s left. And so the idea, again, with supply-side economics is that, well, this will be good for the business, the economy will grow, and everyone will benefit.
[00:08:38] Another thing that the Reagan administration changed to support supply-side economics was a change in the legal test for competitiveness. If you’ve ever heard of a potential Supreme Court justice by the name of Bork, he’s the guy who really came up with this idea. Prior to the Reagan years, the idea was is that competition required a minimum of two people or entities trying to sell into the same market for the same product, and they’re competing for those consumers. After the Reagan years, the legal test for competitiveness was: is the consumer harmed by monopolistic power?
[00:09:10] So for example, let’s say that you live in a rural town and you would really like to be able to be a remote worker and stay in your rural town. Well, you can’t do that because you don’t have high-speed internet. And there’s only one provider in your area that could possibly do it, but they don’t want to run a line to your town. They don’t think it’ll be profitable for them. So they don’t do it, and you don’t have another option. And let’s say that your town comes in and they say, “You know what? We’re going to get together as a town. We’re going to put on our own broadband.” And so this is now your local government creating their own internet service so that you can participate in the remote-work economy. But then, the telecom comes in and says, “No, no, no. We’ll actually put the line in,” and they do. And now, your idea of having a municipal-owned broadband is now gone. But the internet sucks and, you know, the rates are outrageous. So then, you go and you say, “Well, this is anticompetitive. We want other choices.” You go to the Supreme Court and they’re going to say, “Well, you cannot prove that you’ve been harmed by having one telecom service in your community, so therefore it’s not anticompetitive, even if there is no actual competition going on.” This can be a head trip, and yet it’s still the standard that we use today.
[00:10:19] And I use the broadband example because this has actually happened. There’s been a number of rural communities that have been have elected mayors who are looking to revitalize, and one of the things they want to do is bring in new tax revenue. How are they going to do that? They want to bring in high-skilled workers. Well, how do you bring in high-skilled workers? Well, they’re going to have to work remote and they’re going to need a good solid internet connection. And so when telecoms told them to go kick rocks, they started doing it themselves. And then, those telecoms then went to the government and said, “We want regulations.” This is the regulatory capture the Chicago school then talked about. And they want regulations to stop that and say that the city cannot own broadband. And that shut down the competitiveness. They then went to the court and the court said, “Well, it’s not actually anticompetitive because you can’t prove that you’re actually being harmed by it.” But this was a change that happened during the Reagan years.
[00:11:06] Another thing that happened was the weakening of labor laws. So we know that union participation and wages have continued to go down since the 1970s. And part of what happened during the Reagan years was there was a strike for the Union for Air Traffic Controllers, and Reagan just fired them all. He didn’t support the unions like every other president had going back to Theodore Roosevelt. He instead just removed them and then worked to weaken the labor laws so that unions had a harder time organizing and going on strike. More recently, this is what just happened with the railroad workers, where they were asking for something very simple like sick days, and the railroad said absolutely not, so they were going to go on strike. Congress stepped in using the lack of labor laws that was created under the Reagan administration.
[00:11:50] Weakening of financial laws. So one of the things that Reagan did is he wanted to liberalize the financial sector, and we’ve talked about this at length in talking about regulations related to banks and banking. And this is where the origins of the savings and loan bust that started — really got going in 1986 and continued into 1992. This is why. And they weaken this thinking like, “Well, we’ll get rid of all these regulations. The banks will make good choices, and then they’ll create, you know, more economic activity and then everyone will benefit.”
[00:12:22] Well, the other thing that happened with these loosening of financial laws was there was an explosion of private equity, which is one of the things supply-side economics really wants are private-equity firms. What’s a private-equity firm? These are the firms that will come into a town and buy a business. So Bain Capital — yes, I know I share a name with the company, but there’s no relation. But Bain Capital, who Mitt Romney worked for, they’ll come in and they’ll buy your local factory. Now, sometimes what they do is they make it more efficient. They return it to profitability, and they spin it back off. If you’ve ever shopped at Burlington Coat Factory, this is exactly what happened to them. They were purchased by Bain Capital in 2007. Bain Capital made them into a profitable entity again, and then took it for an IPO and now it’s traded on the stock exchange, and therefore Bain was able to exit by selling their shares in the IPO. But you get the idea here. The other way that this can happen is PE firms will look for companies that are undervalued, they’ll buy them, and then shut them down and sell off all their assets. Or to put it another way, other things that happen with private-equity firms is they come in and they strip-mine and move all the factories down to a different location like Mexico. So this is absolutely huge.
[00:13:34] And so to understand that, like, as we went through supply-side economics, these businesses did, in fact, do better. They did massively better under the Reagan years. But people who were corporate raiders in the Reagan years talk about it in hushed tones in reverence of the great environment that Ronald Reagan created. But if you look at like the news articles from the time of people losing jobs and, you know, hostile takeovers and all these other things, like for your average worker, this is where wages really started to slide. This is also where we started to see offshoring. And these companies did really, really well, and everybody could see that. So one of the criticisms of supply-side economics was, well, this just really helps the businesses and the wealthy become more wealthy. But the supply-sider said, “No, no, no. Don’t worry about that. Any wealth that’s created will eventually trickle throughout the economy.” And this is where the phrase “trickle-down economics” comes from. Because in their mind, if the businesses become extra, extra wealthy, they’re going to just inherently want to pay their employees more because they’re going to want to pay for top talent, they’re going to want to invest in their business, they’re going to create economic activity, and everyone’s going to benefit. This goes back to their idea that if the businesses get really, really wealthy, the economic pie will grow. And has it? Yes, absolutely it has. But they also assume that you are going to be able to share in that pie growth, and that’s the piece that a lot of people point to and say hasn’t happened. But again, on supply-side economics, it’s the idea that if businesses do well, then so does everyone else. So we should all be very interested in how well those businesses are doing and how the laws might affect them.
[00:15:11] The last piece of supply-side economics that’s worth talking about is the idea that taxes have an optimal point that maximizes the tax revenue for the government. So like I said before, when Reagan came into the presidency, the top tax rate was north of 70%, and he cut it drastically. And I think — and don’t quote me because I don’t know the number off the top of my head — but I believe he cut it down into the 20s. And the idea here was is that if I cut the taxes, the businesses and wealthy individuals will do better, they’ll want to invest, this will create more economic activity. As the economic activity increases, then they’ll have to hire more people, they’ll be buying more stuff, and that’ll create more economic activity. That economic activity then will be taxed, thus increasing the tax revenue that’s being collected by the government. So the idea was we cut taxes, create more activity, more activity equals more taxes. And we’re going to talk about here in a second as to what the empirical evidence tells us about that, but that’s the idea. Reagan believed this completely, and every politician that more or less has been elected, with the exception of possibly Bernie Sanders and AOC, have also gone along with this. Whether it’s George W. Bush, George H. W. Bush, Trump, Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama — it doesn’t matter. They’re all on this train; that the idea is is that we have this optimal tax point that will maximize revenue, but nobody quite knows where it is.
[00:16:35] So let’s talk about some of the major thinkers for supply-side economics. The first is Robert Mundell, who wrote, was writing in 1968, and he’s the guy who really came up with the idea that lower taxes and a stable money supply would equal growth for the economy. So if we just lower taxes and hold the money supply constant, the economy will then grow because people will be able to grow the economy, have things that they’re able to put into it. Businesses won’t be taxed, they’ll be able to invest, buy better machines, making workers more productive. More productive workers will make more stuff, and therefore the workers will be paid more. And it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that that’s not what happened because worker productivity has continued to rise, but wages have been basically flat since the ’70s.
[00:17:19] The next person to talk about isn’t really necessarily a thinker, but it’s a person by the name of Jude Wanniski, and they’re a journalist who was writing in 1978. And what their contribution really was was that they brought the ideas of supply-side economics to the public mind. There are now articles about taxes because remember taxes were very, very high. Like, John F. Kennedy actually talked about cutting taxes, but he was cutting a tax rate from 90 down to 75 in terms of the very top marginal tax bracket. Now, it’s worth noting that one of the things the supply-side never talks about is where the taxes actually go and what we did. If you remember John F. Kennedy, he set a goal for the nation to send a man to the moon and return him safely to Earth, which generated a ton of economic activity with NASA and all the research and technology they created.
[00:18:09] And lastly and certainly not least is probably the most famous person of supply-side economics. That’s Mr. Arthur Laffer in 1974. He’s actually never published any works, but he has had some policy papers. And I use the term 1974 specifically because that’s his first public paper on public policy. But Arthur Laffer is famous for something called the Laffer Curve. And the story goes that he was explaining to politicians of a Republican stripe on the back of a napkin about the Laffer Curve. And the idea here is is that there’s a balance point between when tax revenue can be maximized. So the idea here is is that if we have a 0% tax rate, then the government will collect no dollars because all activity is not taxed. But if we have a 100% tax rate, there’s no incentive to work because every penny that you earn will go to the government. So the government will collect zero there as well because no one will actually produce anything. So the optimum tax rate is somewhere between zero and a hundred. And so he drew like this nice arch and said, “Yeah, the optimal tax rate’s right here. We’re taxing just enough to maximize revenue, but not too much that we’re disincentivizing economic activity.” And so the other thing that Arthur Laffer really believes here is that taxes are the central concern in decision-making for businesses and individuals. That is to say, without considering taxes, we won’t make a decision. If we go to the store and we see the sales tax is a little higher, we won’t buy that thing. And it’s interesting because you can actually look at this.
[00:19:47] And this brings us to some of the criticism of supply-side economics. The Laffer Curve is probably Exhibit A because here’s the deal: we love to tax things that we consider vices, like, you know, smoking and alcohol. And the question that you can just put out there is: if taxes are essential to people’s thinking, do people drink less in areas where taxes on alcohol are higher? And the answer is not even a little bit. I get it. I’m from the state of Wisconsin. We have our own special thing going on with how much we drink. But if you look at a normal population, their drinking is not affected by the tax rate hardly at all. It’s not a central concern when it comes to people. Even Laffer himself said that his curve was theoretical in nature only because he had no data to actually support it. But Reagan doubled down on it because it’s an idea that sounds really good. “We’re going to lower taxes to be able to maximize things.” But one of the things that we’ve learned over the Trump years was, well, we lowered taxes. Oh my God! It blew a gigantic hole in the budget. We obviously are on the wrong side of the peak for the Laffer Curve. Let’s increase taxes and see if we can find it. No, no, no. We only lower. Again, with these half-hearted things. With Milton Friedman, we had all the stuff about monetary policy and completely missed all of his stuff about a negative income tax. With Keynes, we had all the stuff about spending. We like to keep that. But all the stuff about reining it in during good times, we totally miss that. We like all the stuff about the invisible hand of the market and completely miss all the stuff about market failures. Like, this is not new. These are criticisms that are leveled against these schools all the time.
[00:21:24] But Reagan really doubled down on it, so there’s a question. We have all the economic data. Did his tax cuts result in a roaring economy? And the answer is not really. What it did result in is a lot of the things that he did to support businesses, like weakening financial regulations, led directly to the savings and loan bust that, you know, led to massive pain failures and pain for everybody. We do know that wages decoupled from productivity and union participation dropped, so there was a real effect. But it didn’t translate into economic gains for the economy as a whole. It did increase the economic pie, but only for a very select few people. That is to say that the average worker, their wages have been flat since the ’70s because as the economy has grown, their wages have not grown with it. This is why we see an increasing disparity between income inequality for the very top and for the people that are more in the middle like myself. And so, like, these are just empirical things. So when you say, like, “Oh, did Trump’s Tax Cuts and Jobs Act actually create a roaring economy?” Not really. There are so many other factors in here and people will point and say, “Well, the job market’s been really strong.” Well, yeah, certainly. We also had COVID that retired almost 3 million baby boomers and kept 1.5 million women out of the workplace. So of course it’s strong. We’re missing a whole bunch of people.
[00:22:46] So it’s also worth noting that a lot of this stuff was developed when you had really high marginal tax rates. Like I’ve already said, the marginal tax rate for the highest earners in the United States in the ’60s and ’70s was around 70%, and the top corporate tax at the time was 56%. And in our current, as I’m recording this, marginal tax rates top out at about 37%, and the corporate tax rate is a flat 21%. And so, you know, there’s a question of like, did we go too far? Should we be taxing more? If Laffer’s Curve is really a real thing, well, shouldn’t the people in the supply-side be saying, “Hey, well, we’re having these budgetary concerns, and so we’re clearly on the wrong side of the peak. Let’s move back up.” Do they do it? No. And that’s, of course, part of the criticism. It really is did you just create a framework to push your political ideals with no real basis in economic reality? And yet every politician that gets elected these days is a full-throated, supply-side economic type of person.
[00:23:46] The other thing that’s interesting about supply-side economics because it’s an offshoot of the Chicago school of economics, they do use econometrics, which means that they’re not like the Austrians who are afraid of math; that they’re willing to do it. So they will continue to make all sorts of economic models. Famously, one of the things that was put into place was that the Congressional Budget Office, which is a nonpartisan part of the inner workings of the government, their job is to score things. And what they do is they say, “This bill, we assume that this bill will do X, Y, and Z to tax revenue.” They’re literally just the accountants to try to figure out how the taxes and how the revenues and stuff are going to change within the economy. And up until Trump, they did not do something called dynamic scoring. That is, they didn’t take into consideration the Laffer Curve because there’s no mathematical way to model it. Like I said, we’ve tried; it doesn’t work. The models don’t reflect reality. And yet they pushed in a change that told the CBO that they have to use dynamic scoring to assume an increase in economic activity to bump tax revenues when scoring different tax bills. So now, instead of using regular math that has actually been fairly accurate, you know, plus or minus a few percents, we’re now using voodoo math to push a political opinion.
[00:25:08] And last but certainly not least, supply-side economics, a criticism of it is that it very much ignores Main Street considerations. And this is where people will say, “Well, Dylan, you’re getting real political here.” Well, maybe I am; maybe I’m not. Is it political to say that this economic theory doesn’t have a whole lot of basis in mathematical reality when it doesn’t have any basis in mathematical reality? Or am I just trying to present things fairly and I’m not trying to find all sorts of ways to make it work? The Main Street considerations? NAFTA. NAFTA is probably the best one you can point to because that’s the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement that allowed so many jobs to be sent to Mexico. Why is that part of the supply-side? Because the supply-side economists were saying at the time, “No, we want free trade. We want globalization. It’d be great for these businesses, and these businesses are going to want to reinvest in communities. Yes, this town in Youngstown, Ohio might lose its factory and so many of you are now going to be unemployed, but ultimately the benefits and blessings of this will be coming right back to you.” And what’s interesting is that the same people who were very supportive of NAFTA have been asked, “Did your predictions about how, as the economic pie grew, that the winners would want to reimburse and compensate the losers — did it come true?” And one by one, they’re starting to say, “No, it didn’t.” But that’s what I mean by a lack of Main Street considerations. It’s absolutely profitable for a car company to move its engine plant from Kenosha, Wisconsin, where I grew up, leaving a hole in my hometown, and move it to Mexico. But the plant was profitable. Everybody knew that. Paul Ryan, who was speaker of the House, he was there. He even said this plant here and this plant in his hometown of Janesville, Wisconsin, they’re profitable. They’re making the money, but they make more money if we move them to Mexico. So they ripped out the livelihood of auto workers in two towns in Wisconsin and gave those jobs and that production to Mexico because it’s cheaper and the profits would go up. Under supply-side economics, they would say, “Well, the business did really great,” so GM, of course, is going to, like, shower Kenosha and Janesville with blessings because that’s how this has worked. Their pie grew. And, of course, that didn’t happen.
[00:27:35] So it’s ignoring the Main Street considerations of how these policies actually impact people who are not the very upper part of the class. This has led to small-town destructions across the United States. One of the things that just drives me absolutely bonkers is how many small towns have been destroyed by private-equity firms coming in, consolidations that then took all those jobs away to someplace else, and have just left small towns that are just racked with depths of despair, where meth and prostitution are the two biggest industries in town. And we sit there and go, “Well, at least the corporations made good money, you know? That’s good supply-side economics. Well good for them, that was a good business decision.” And we completely forget that prior to the Chicago school, where Milton Friedman coming in and saying things like, “Shareholder value is all that matters,” those companies looked at themselves as anchors for these towns, as an active member within the daily lives of all those people. And you can even see this in the decoupling of productivity and wages. U.S. workers, until very recently, have been more productive year over year over year, but their wages have remained stagnant in terms of inflation adjustments since the 1970s whereas the people who are reaping the benefits of that production are massively increasing.
[00:28:57] And as I end this section here today and end my study on these economic schools of thought, one of the things I don’t want to come across is an idea that, like, we should be resentful of these types of things or that we should be sitting here blaming every, you know, the top 1% for the plagues of the bottom 99. There’s a philosophical thing that go along with these economic schools of thought have real-world implications. But for you, my dear listener, as the individual, the important thing to take away here is an understanding that, yes, this happens; yes, these are real things; and your job is to navigate this. Your job is to understand it. Your job is to play this game, now knowing a better understanding of the rules, and play it to win. At the end of the day, I can’t go and change anything any more than I could make any of these economic schools of thought have to actually do math. But they’re important to our daily lives because they inform our political conversations because politicians use them to lie to us and say stupid shit like, “Oh, if that company does well, they’ll inherently just be incentivized to share it with you.” You know, in my 40 years on this earth, that’s never happened. And so this is going to end our study on economics, I might come back and talk about some of the other schools, like behavioral economics, but that’s going to be a while. Until next time, ladies and gentlemen, have yourselves a fantastic weekend. I love each and every single one of you, and I will see you on Tuesday.
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