Politics

"Automatic Government" is Leading to an Automatic Spending Disaster

Philip K. Howard, "The Rule of Nobody," and how technocracy is strangling the future.

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This article originally appeared at The Daily Beast on April 10, 2014. Read it there.

If the government that governs least governs best, then the government that governs via a demented form of "scientific management" and "legal assembly line" governs worst.

That's the essential insight of Philip K. Howard's important new book, The Rule of Nobody: Saving America From Dead Laws and Broken Government. An attorney by trade, Howard is the author of The Death of Common Sense: How Law Is Suffocating America, a huge 1995 best seller that started a still-heated and vital national conversation about nuisance lawsuits, power-tripping bureaucrats and special interests, and out-of-control regulations. He also heads up Common Good, a nonprofit seeking to "overhaul governmental and legal systems to allow people to make sensible choices."

The Rule of Nobody updates and expands Howard's original brief, and it helps to explain why government at all levels not only is on autopilot but on a flight path that can only end in disaster. As he told me in a recent interview, he's no rock-ribbed libertarian (pity!), but an old-fashioned, plain-vanilla centrist in every possible way. (Common Good's board has included the likes of George McGovern and Alan Simpson, Bill Bradley and Tom Kean.) Which only makes Howard's basic argument that much more difficult to wave away as some sort of ideologically motivated attack against past, present, or future occupants of the White House.

How does "automatic government" stultify things? Consider what Howard calls the "Bayonne Bridge episode." The 83-year-old "architectural masterpiece" in question spans the colorfully named Kill Van Kull and connects New York Harbor with the Port of Newark, the busiest port on the East Coast. A few years back, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the generally risible agency intimately involved with Gov. Chris Christie's political future (or lack thereof), realized that modern container ships designed to take advantage of the enlarged Panama Canal wouldn't be able to fit under the bridge's 151-foot clearance. The Port Authority figured a brand-new bridge or tunnel—costing a whopping $4 billion of money nobody had—was the only way forward. Then a smart project manager came up with the idea of raising the roadway on the existing bridge by about 100 feet. That would not only do the trick but save $3 billion in the process. So far, so good.

Watch Reason TV's interview with Philip K. Howard (story continues below video):

"That was 2009," writes Howard. "At the beginning of 2013, the Port still lacked approval to start construction. Who, you might reasonably ask, has the authority to approve a project like this?" The answer is basically no one, at least not in "a deliberate or timely way." At a minimum, the project requires 47 permits from at least "19 different governmental entities," including an environmental review by the Environmental Protection Agency that is both redundant of existing information and a total time-suck given the relatively modest alterations involved. Just "finding a lead agency [to start the review] took almost one year." Even President Obama—who designated the bridge revamp as one "seven essential port infrastructure projects" and who oversees the EPA—was powerless to speed things up. It remains far from clear that the project will be completed by 2015, when the new and improved Panama Canal opens for business and the bigger and taller container ships start sailing the ocean blue.

"Under current orthodoxy," writes Howard, "the ideal government runs like a software program: Input the facts and out comes a decision." While stressing that such a "technocratic model…has many plausible virtues" and evolved as a way to combat favoritism and partisan whimsy, he convincingly argues that contemporary government has removed virtually all scope for human intervention and responsibility. The result isn't a fairer, more predictable form of government, but "a form of tyranny," says Howard. "The fact that the tyrant is a bureaucratic blob instead of Birmingham police chief Bull Connor means that our freedom is smothered instead of subjugated at the point of a weapon."

I don't buy the extreme version of Howard's argument, at least at the federal level. Like President George W. Bush before him, Obama has shown both the ability and willingness to act unilaterally—and even unconstitutionally—when it suits his fancy. As my Reason colleague Jacob Sullum has noted, Bush illegally used Troubled Asset Relief Program funds to bail out GM and Chrysler. Obama expanded the auto bailout while also dropping bombs on Libya and persistently rewriting his own health-care law, all without necessary congressional approval. There's every reason to believe that whoever wins the 2016 presidential race will at least dabble in Caesarism, too.

But there's no question that Howard is essentially right when he talks about government that is largely beyond the control of anyone, especially on spending. The federal budget is split into two large categories known as "discretionary" spending and "mandatory" spending. Discretionary spending comes up every year for renewal; the biggest-ticket item in that category is the defense budget. Mandatory spending includes entitlement programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, as well as other social-insurance programs such as food stamps and veterans' benefits. It doesn't need to be renewed each year and generally is not subject to the sorts of spending caps that at least theoretically limit discretionary outlays. 

In 2013, fully 60 percent of federal outlays came in the form of mandatory spending. In 1962, before the creation of Medicare and Medicaid, let alone Obamacare, mandatory spending accounted for less than 30 percent of federal spending. Within a decade, it will top 70 percent of federal outlays, if current trends continue. There is, needless to say, nothing truly mandatory about it. Medicare isn't some fact of nature but the creation of politicians who at can change or abolish it any time. At the state and local level, more and more outlays are governed by rules dictating minimum funding guarantees, such as California's formula for school funding) or payouts to public-sector pensioners.

It's clear why politicians like "mandatory" spending: It absolves them of any real responsibility while also shoveling heaping servings of cash to high-turnout voters. For all the rancor in D.C., neither Democrats nor Republicans show the least bit of interest in seriously tackling entitlement reform or shifting "mandatory" spending into "discretionary" funding, where it would come up for an annual and on-the-record vote.

Of course, the problem is that putting increasing amounts of spending, including increasing amounts of automatic increases in spending, on autopilot means that governments can't deal with changed circumstances. Does anyone seriously think that the need for and structure of Social Security—created during the Great Depression, for god's sake, and at a time when there were 160 workers per beneficiary—is relevant to 21st-century America, in which households headed by seniors have 47 times the wealth of households headed by people under 35 years old?

With the possible exception of Juice Box Mafia  button man Matthew Yglesias, safely ensconced in the journalistic rubber room that is Vox, all analysts, politicians, and observers agree that unchecked growth federal spending and the increases in debt it presumes pose a serious threat to the economic viability of the United States. Paul Krugman does, and so does Obama, who in the fall of 2008 was still campaigning on a "net spending cut."

The Rule of Nobody envisions "a shift in values—away from automatic government and toward a structure that allows humans to make choices needed to adapt to local need and global challenges." Well, here's hoping. Howard proposes a series of constitutional amendments that he says would flip the autopilot off and reinvigorate the sorts of reforms we need to avoid looming disaster. Some of these are more compelling than others—certainly it's a great idea to create mandatory sunsets on "all laws and programs with budgetary impact"—but all are worthy of discussion.

Bankrupt cities and states are starting to challenge the inviolability of budget-busting pension guarantees, the Fed is winding down QE-Whatever, and there's simply no way that entitlements as we have known them will survive the next few decades. (The Social Security retirement trust fund is already paying out more than it takes in on an annual basis, and Medicare is set to double not just its number of recipients but the annual payout per beneficiary by 2040.)

Howard is far from alone in noting that "big change is inevitable." The only question is whether we will manage it proactively or reactively. And whether the Bayonne Bridge project will be completed on time.

This article originally appeared at The Daily Beast on April 10, 2014. Read it there.

Watch Reason TV's interview with Howard:

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  1. Slightly OT – Am I the only one who misread that as ‘Phillip K Dick’?

    1. No, I did exactly the same thing.

    2. No, I read it as ‘Phillip K Dictator’.

    3. Right there with ya.

  2. Who, you might reasonably ask, has the authority to approve a project like this?” The answer is basically no one, at least not in “a deliberate or timely way.”

    SEE?! THIS is why we need Dictators A Dictator *The Dictator*!

  3. Even President Obama?who designated the bridge revamp as one “seven essential port infrastructure projects” and who oversees the EPA?was powerless to speed things up.

    That can’t be true. I’ve been told, by people on these very hear boardz that the regulatory agencies are ENTIRELY democratic. That all one has to do is lobby or petition their elected representative who in turn has the agency in question change its policy to reflect the democratic wishes of the electorate. Easy peasy.

  4. It’s funny how massive government becomes the very thing that people who decry “anarchy” always complain about: that we would be ruled by gangs and strongmen. So what do you call what we have now? Just because you don’t call unaccountable cops who can kill with near impunity a gang or powerful unaccountable bureaucrats warlords doesn’t mean they aren’t the same fucking thing.

    1. But our Warlords have policies and procedures. And a union.

      Did Mohamed Farrah Aidid have policies, procedures and a union?

      I think not.

    2. All primarily caused by cowardice on the part of our elected representatives.

      1. ^This. 100% This.

    3. Something, something, democracy?

    4. Feudalism is still alive and well. The problem is the lords are given charge of agencies and NGOs instead of manors and estates.

    5. Again I ask, once people organize for the purpose of violence, what stops them from plundering and calling it taxation?

      So what do you call what we have now?

      Exactly. It’s not that government is preferable, it’s more like it’s inevitable.

  5. Philip K. Howard is not a friend to Libertarianism. If you look at the details of his proposal, he doesn’t want to reduce government power (in fact he wants to increase it). He just wants to stop government being restrained by rules that force them to behave with any consistency.

    He wants a world were governement officials have large leeway to do whatever they like based on their current judgement of what “the community” wants.

    1. He wants a world were governement officials have large leeway to do whatever they like based on their current judgement of what “the community” wants.

      I get what he’s driving at though and don’t entirely see it as a strictly anti-libertarian. If the Federal Gov’t wants to seize my guns and Kinder eggs, local law enforcement is responsible for deciding if my door gets kicked in or if “they’ll get around to it.”

      I think you could convince him, if he doesn’t already believe, that granting more individual power in a culture of automated bureaucracy does little, in and of itself, to erode the culture of automation.

      Any indication of his proposals relative to the NAP?

    2. Not “governement” but “groverment”, at least according to the article. ;-D

  6. wasn’t it nick gillespie that was telling us we never had it so good back in 2009 when people were literally having their house sold out from under them? why should anyone take anything this way-past-his-prime hipster has to say. yes, nick, i know, i know you’re cool with pot. Good for yoooou!

    can anyone tell me whether the deficit is going up or down under dictator Obama. i mean, given the predictions of libertarians and right-wingers it must have increased to a gazookazooka billion dollars with the Maoists who currently reside in the WH.

    1. What the hell does the deficit have to do with the President being dictatorial or not, and what moreover does it have to do with Maoism?

      Could you try to have a point in between the nonsensical gibberish and incoherent babbling?

    2. I’m not surprised that a socialist has no understanding of civics. You see, Congress passes budgets. The president’s role is to stomp his feet like a petulant child when they don’t pass a sufficiently eye-watering budget and do everything he can to sidestep the Constitution through executive orders. Hope this helps.

      1. so the tax increase on the wealthy and the fact that this President wound down two of his predecessor’s bullshit wars didn’t decrease the budget?

        1. Tax increases on “the wealthy” tend not to increase revenues as a percentage of GDP one iota. But you don’t care if there’s any actual benefit as long as “the rich” are punished. If you want to increase taxes in a way that will increase revenue you have to hit everyone with VAT or sales taxes like Britain, Canada, Australia and most of the countries in Europe have done. So much for “Progressive Taxation”.

          As to Bush’s wars, which had few supporters on this site, Iraq ended on the timetable set down by the Bush administration in 2008. The only action Obama took was to try to extend and increse the US presence.

          And the war in Afghanistan was stepped up several notches, increasing casualty levles. So I’m hard-pressed to see where there could be any “decrease the budget”.

          1. To the extent that the deficit has decreased, it’s partly due to the fact that tax collections have increased due to increases in GDP and the end of one-time programs like TARP.

          2. “As to Bush’s wars, which had few supporters on this site”

            Except for its senior science writer.

            “Tax increases on “the wealthy” tend not to increase revenues as a percentage of GDP one iota.”

            Right… tax increases don’t increase revenue and tax decrease increase revenue. I’ve been hearing this one from conservatives for years. Its a hoot.

            1. Income tax increases don’t increase revenue because they are accompanied by so many exemptions and deductions that nobody actually ends up paying the highest marginal tax rate.

        2. He wanted to keep going in Iraq, but the Iraqis wouldn’t let him, so he was forced to withdraw using the agreement that his predecessor negotiated. So 0 for 1. He doubled down on Afghanistan because he luvs him some “good” war, but his surge didn’t work out as well as his predecessors so now he’s being forced to withdraw by the American ppl. So 0 for 2. And he has run the highest budget deficits of any post-WWII president both real terms as well as %of GDP. So 0 for 3. The fact that he’s “only” overspending by half a trillion dollars now is not a good thing.

        3. Why can’t you stop lying?

          How does a troop surge count as winding down a war?
          http://www.huffingtonpost.com/…..68447.html
          (You’ll note that I turned to noted right-wing carrier of conservative water, HuffBlow)

          Is that liking being for something before you were against it?

    3. Does a gazookazooka have anything to do with “concealed bazooka on their lapel”?

      https://reason.com/24-7/2014/04…..nt_4423097

  7. wasn’t it nick gillespie that was telling us we never had it so good back in 2009 when people were literally having their house sold out from under them?

    [citation, ummm, needed]

    can anyone tell me whether the deficit is going up or down under dictator Obama.

    Up. In 2009, Obama presided over more spending than Bush did in 2008. Over his term, Obama has run cumulative deficits vastly in excess of any of his predecessors.

    Thanks for asking.

    1. 2009– 1.413 billion
      2010– 1.294 billion
      2011– 1,300 billion
      2012– 1,087 billion
      2013– 680 billion (its much lower than that, actually)

      my numbers come from a right-wing, Booosch supporting website so your face won’t melt off when you visit http://www.usgovernmentspending.com

      1. History did not begin in 2009.

        Deficits, in billions:

        2001 -128.23
        2002 157.75
        2003 377.59
        2004 412.73
        2005 318.35
        2006 248.18
        2007 160.71
        2008 458.55
        2009 1412.69

        If we ignore the contentious 2001 and 2009 since responsibility for the surpluses/deficits in those years cannot be clearly laid at the foot of one administration or another, the totals are:

        Bush admin: $2.13 trillion over 6 years
        Obama admin: $4.36 trillion over 4 years

        Try again.

        1. right. obama reduced the deficits caused by his predecessor’s mismanagement and contines to do so. i’m glad you are ignoring 2001 and 2009 since those statistics might blow that position paper pushing “brain” of yours.

          1. Mismanagement how? Barry luvs 80% of the Bush tax cuts, so that can’t be it. His cuts to military spending were pre-programmed, so that can’t be it. He absolutely HATES the sequestor, so that can’t be it. The TARP bailout of GM? Wait, that started under Bush, but Barry likes to take credit for that. The stimulus that was supposed to hold unemployment to 8%? Well that didn’t work. The $2500 savings in healthcare premiums? Well that didn’t work.

            Nope. Not seein’ it.

          2. 2009 Budget was actually signed by Obama.

            The Democrats did that on purpose so they could take credit.

            So, since they wanted the credit, they deserve the blame, too.

            If you wish to split hairs, I will grant you all spending signed for by Bush in separate bills, but that means about 500 billion of new spending was Obama’s.

            1. And of course Obama was a senator during this time. Its not like he was gone fishing.

              1. Doesn’t voting “present” count?

  8. Great article. It seems that amending the Constitution is becoming a more widely accepted view. Next month, I will release my own book about how to amend the Constitution. Visit foundersliberty.com or find us on facebook.

  9. “Does anyone seriously think that the need for and structure of Social Security?created during the Great Depression, for god’s sake, and at a time when there were 160 workers per beneficiary?is relevant to 21st-century America, in which households headed by seniors have 47 times the wealth of households headed by people under 35 years old?”

    yes… and the relative affluence of older people in this country are evidence of the success of this program.

    1. Nothing says success like stealing from the most productive age groups to fund the lavish lifestyles of the least productive age groups.

      But I can take comfort watching 15% of my pay disappear, knowing that Grandma and Grandpa won’t have to be more austere and go on five cruises this year instead of six.

      1. right. libertarians would push their grandma out of the wheelchair so we can put more money in the pockets of these wunderkind “job creators.” thereby showing themselves to be both economically illiterate and pathological at the same time.

        1. Are you really this stupid ?

        2. Are you really this stupid ?

          1. Yes

        3. Someone oblivious to capital letters referring to anyone as illiterate? Pure comedic gold!

          A fucking socialist referring to anyone as pathological? Closer to tragedy than comedy.

  10. “all analysts, politicians, and observers agree that unchecked growth federal spending and the increases in debt it presumes pose a serious threat to the economic viability of the United States.”

    no they don’t, more think the problem is anemic growth and a sizeable portion of them will say that deficits should be righted by tax increase on the wealthy as opposed to cuts in government programs. its a good thing we didn’t listen to deficit scolds back in 2008-2009, when everything was right as rain, lest we had 15 and 20% unemployment like they do in greece and spain where they had austerity programs imposed upon them by the eu.

    “Paul Krugman does”

    just curious, nick, do you think that because paul krugman says something that liberals automatically agree or that there aren’t Leftist critiques of his positions?

    1. Socialist,
      Just out of curiosity, if we raise the taxes on corporations, owned by the rich, what happens to the price of the goods they sell to the general public?

      1. depends on the good.

        two concerns i have with regard to the tax code are the low rates of taxation on equities and the income cap on social security taxes– both of which result in regressive rates of taxation.

        1. depends on the good

          What goods will not increase in price if their producers are more heavily taxed?

          low rates of taxation on equities

          … and if we raise taxes on equities, which are returns from already taxed entities, what happens to the level of investment in the economy?

          income cap on social security taxes

          There’s also a benefit cap on social security payments, so what’s your point?

          1. so you are saying we can’t have social security taxes that are progressive and a benefot cap too? why not?

        2. The funny thing is that while you are obsessing about making the tax code here more progressive the welfare states that are anywhere close to having balanced budgets have cut there high marginal tax rates and rely on totally regressive taxes to finance their programs; the Scandinavians with VAT and the Canadians and the Australians with sales taxes (Norway, with its oils and gas revenues, of course, is an outlier).

          1. I forgot to mention it, but of course, another reason those countries can balance their budgets is because they spend next to nothing on defense.

          2. right, scandanavian tax rates are less progressive than american ones?

            1. Yes and you’re an idiot.

              1. Duh, I’m a libertarian and I can’t tell the difference between the proportion of taxes paid by the rich and % of income paid by the rich and poor taxpayers. Help me… I’m both stupid and intellectually dishonest.

                1. You really are a dumb fucker, aren’t you? You just keep coming back for more.

              2. Quick question… can’t you right wingers post articles that aren’t from obvious conservative hacks?

                “Veronique de Rugy blogs about the progressive income tax at NRO’s The Corner.”

                1. You understand that the numbers come from the OECD, don’t you? Very well, here’s Ezra’s former home also calling you a moron.

                  Quick answer: Can’t you socialists come up with anyone other than Krugman or Saez for your economic wisdom?

                  1. Sorry, I meant to say they come from the OECD.

                    1. Duh, I’m a libertarian. I think the proportion of taxes paid by rich people is an indication of tax progressivity and that popular articles by journalists with axes to grind is iron-clad proof of my position.

                      Ethiopia is the country with the most progressive tax code.

                    2. I linked to the Atlantic (hardly a right wing publication), the Washington Post (the home of Ezra himself), and directly to the OECD itself. And all you have is, well, stupidity. That’s precious. Yes, the proportion of taxes paid by rich people IS progressivity, i.e. if they pay a disproportionate amount more of their income in taxes, then the tax system is said to be “progressive.”

                      You questioned how progressive the US tax code is relative to the Scandinavian countries which are included in the OECD. You were shown repeatedly to be wrong. Like any good Leftard you hug your Krugman plushie and repeat out loud, “Not fair. Not fair. NOT FAIR!”

            2. The US has nothing resembling the VAT nor the Goods and Services Tax (GST, Canada & Australia) nor do most of those countries (except OZ which basical collects income tax for all the states) have a tax rate equal to the US.

              But, of course, you don’t care, as long as “the rich” are punished.

              1. Sorry, but of course, Australia does have a regressive GST plus a high marginal income tax rate because it collects income tax for the states.

                1. Which, of course the USA does not.

                  Canada does collect income tax for the provinces (except PQ) but it does so on a separate line on the tax return and at a rate that is different for each province.

                  But I don’t really expect “american socialist” to know any of these things. Perhaps when he has finished his freshman sociology class with a Marxist professor he can take a class that will give him some clue about how things work in the real world.

    2. that there aren’t Leftist critiques of his positions?

      I’m sure Nick, like most of us, is aware of the existence of Communism.

      its a good thing we didn’t listen to deficit scolds back in 2008-2009

      So the Obama administration is keeping the deficit down (upthread), but it’s a good thing they didn’t keep the deficit down. Totally consistent position you’ve got there.

      when everything was right as rain

      Yeah, we were all out partying in the streets. Bailing out banks, insurers, and automakers is one of the prime tenets of libertarian thought.

      lest we had 15 and 20% unemployment like they do in greece and spain where they had austerity programs imposed upon them by the eu.

      Greece and Spain, models of fiscal austerity. Libertarians dream of the day public debt is over 100% of GDP and government spending is over 50% of GDP.

      1. …which don’t translate to lower levels of economic growth– at least beyond a certain percentage.

        1. Yes, they do. Even the critics of Rogoff and Reinhardt agreed with the sign of the number, they just argued about the exact magnitude.

          1. No they didn’t…

            “In fact, after carrying out some formal tests, Herndon, Ash, and Pollin report that “differences in average GDP growth in the categories 30-60 percent, 60-90 percent, and 90-120 percent cannot be statistically distinguished.””

            Now that the deficit is rapidly declining have we reached the dreaded Rogoff and Reinhardt 90% Figure of Doom yet? I’m sure Paul Ryan will be pimping that figure while he proposes gigantic tax breaks for rich people. I wonder what that will do to the deficit.

              1. There’s no way AS is going to be able to wrap its head around that.

      2. “So the Obama administration is keeping the deficit down (upthread), but it’s a good thing they didn’t keep the deficit down. Totally consistent position you’ve got there.”

        Its called economic growth dumbass. If we had followed the libertarian position paper economics pushed by Nick Gillespie we would have had 15% unemployment and negative rates of economic growth– plus alot of people getting unemployment benefits. You know, like what is happening in Spain, Greece, and Italy. Lucky for us we didn’t have Gary Fucking Johnson in the WH.

        1. Its called economic growth dumbass

          If the government spent the money on productive things, then you might have a point. Nothing that the current administration’s deficits have paid for has increased economic productivity. In fact, much of what has been done has decreased productivity. Even the much-touted shovel-ready infrastructure “improvements” largely consisted of erecting useless buildings and clogging the roads for months while shittily repaving small potholes.

          Spending is a necessary but not sufficient condition for economic growth. At the very least, Keynes himself would agree that you have to spend the money wisely.

        2. If we had followed the libertarian position paper economics pushed by Nick Gillespie we would have had 15% unemployment and negative rates of economic growth– plus alot of people getting unemployment benefits

          If you could perhaps identify the positions that you think were advocated, then we could have an honest debate about their effectiveness.

          You know, like what is happening in Spain, Greece, and Italy.

          What has happened in Spain, Greece, and Italy is that they ran out of other people’s money. You say “austerity” was “imposed” by the EU, well did you honestly expect Germany to fund the entire fucking continent’s bloated government pensions?

          Yeah sure if Germany infused the rest of the EU with easy money, Greece and Spain would have lower unemployment. For a little while. But then the entire continent’s economy would collapse because Greece and Spain have no fiscal sense.

          It always come back to the lowest common denominator with socialists. You are jealous and petulant children, too stupid to understand that you’re poor because of bad choices, and too naive to understand that taking what you want by force does not end in your favor.

          You people don’t even begin to understand how money works, yet you covet it so much. At the very least, know thine enemy for fuck’s sake.

  11. It is a shame that PKH’s chief point is a call for the executive to act ‘unilaterally’, which should be spelled ‘lawlessly’. This yahoo is just another TDR bullshit mooser – a la the progressive mantra of ‘lets throw the constitution under the bus because those damn founders had no idea how evolved we is’. The answer should be: ‘the federal government has no business telling NY&NJ; how to build a port.’

  12. You people sicken me. I’m the only one to catch this?

    The Bayonne Bridge project exemplifies what Philip K. Howard calls “the rule of nobody” in his bracing and vital new book about “dead laws and broken grovernment.”

    Groverment? Government by muppet?

  13. Lesson for right-wingers… learn how to use Excel.

    http://www.peri.umass.edu/file…../WP322.pdf

    1. The RR study is flawed, but the riposte does not invalidate the conclusion and still has methodological issues.

      Lesson for all… statistics is hard.

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