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Ideology and the spill

By Jonathan Bernstein

On the one hand, I sort of like what I think Yuval Levin is trying to do in this post at NRO, because I think it points to a more honest small-government conservative rhetoric. I'm really not a fan of what Jonathan Chait calls (in the tax context, but I think it applies more generally) conservative magical thinking. Chait is talking about the (fraudulent, obviously) idea that cutting taxes invariably will raise revenues, but I think it could apply as well to conservative suggestions that if only government would get out of the way markets would somehow cure every problem in the world. A more honest conservative rhetoric, it seems to me, would accept that smaller government will have costs, but argue that it's better to bear those costs than to chase after what in their view is a misguided Utopian impulse to fix every problem. So Levin is concerned about "completely unreasonable expectations of government. The fact is, accidents (not to mention storms) happen ... and sometimes they happen on a scale that is just too great to be easily addressed. It is totally unreasonable to expect the government to be able to easily address them -- and the kind of government that would be capable of that is not the kind of government that we should want."

On the other hand, as Kevin Drum points out, regardless of what one might think government should do in the abstract, in the real world we have actually charged the federal government with some responsibilities and not with others, and it's quite reasonable to assess how government does based on what we've decided to have it do -- and Drum points out that by that standard, the Bush administration's response to Katrina was truly awful because it had let FEMA atrophy for years.

Katrina would have been an immense disaster no matter what. But it was far worse than it had to be because a conservative administration, one that fundamentally disdained the mechanics of government for ideological reasons, decided that FEMA wasn't very important. Likewise, the BP blowout was made more likely because that same administration decided that government regulation of private industry wasn't very important and turned the relevant agency into a joke. If you believe that government is the problem, not the solution, and if you actually run the country that way for eight years, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. But we shouldn't pretend it's inevitable.

On the specific question of Katrina and BP, Bush and Obama, I think Drum is clearly correct. But there is a good conservative response to his general point, although I think Drum is correct that it would involve rejecting the slogan that government is the problem, not the solution. Levin could respond that with so many agencies, and so many tasks for the federal government, it is inevitable that some agencies are going to be badly run; if the liberal impulse every time something goes wrong in the world is to ask government to fix it and avoid it ever happening again, you'll wind up with a government so large that no one could manage it. And, of course, there is a liberal response to that argument, which is simply to say that conservatives are too pessimistic about the capacity humans have to organize things. In my view as an observer, this is a healthy argument to have, and one that we do not have nearly as often as we should, mainly because the conservative side has dropped out of making serious points and instead indulges too often in magical thinking.

At any rate, two other thoughts about this. One is that I think it's pretty obvious that whatever Levin wants, in fact Americans turn immediately to the president and demand action whenever anything like this happens. In that sense, I think conservatives have badly lost the argument. The other, and fairly depressing, thing, is that the news media and most citizens don't seem to have any interest in trying to make the distinctions that Drum points out. In fact, there's evidence that it's even worse; there have been studies (and I'll have to apologize for not providing citations) that voters tend to be influenced even by such things as good and bad weather. Drought? Damaging storms? Blame the incumbent politicians. Now, I happen to be an optimist about democracy, but realistic optimism requires accepting findings about voters, and the picture often isn't very pretty.

Jonathan Bernstein blogs about American politics, political institutions and democracy at A Plain Blog About Politics, and you can follow him on Twitter here.

By Washington Post editor  |  May 28, 2010; 11:20 AM ET
 
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The conservative ideal should be to clearly define the role of government, and maximize its efficiency in its areas of responsibility. Instead, it sometimes seems conservatives feel they are stuck with government having its hand in too many areas, so the answer is to limit its reach in each area. So you wind up with wide-ranging government responsibilities, but a lack of effectiveness in many areas.

Posted by: jduptonma | May 28, 2010 11:39 AM | Report abuse

This is all fine and good but if we agree that Bush was an idiot and his administration was inefficient at best and corrupt at worst exactly what is the Obama administration doing for New Orleans when we hear that this summer will have approximately 10 hurricanes? Haven't the locals down there been calling for help from this administration this year to address serious flaws to their systems down there? Are they being addressed?

Posted by: visionbrkr | May 28, 2010 11:54 AM | Report abuse

There is such a thing in the law as common resources, that is, resources that by their very nature cannot be privately owned, among these flowing water, air, fish and wildlife. Traditionally these were owned by the sovereign (king) and when first Britain and then the US became constitutional democracies they became ptoperty of the government. Impoprtantly, the US government owns these resources not in its proprietary capacity, as when it owns the land on which a military base sits, but as a trustee. That is, the resources are commonly owned and the gov't (state and federal, depending) administers them as a trustee for the People. This is not new age gobbledegook but the actual US law on natural resources going back decades. It's why we have oil LEASES.

The gov't may permit the use of common resources and it may permit ownership under defined circumstances, like catching fish with a license. (Water rights, however, are purely state matters, and even the Feds have to acquire water rights under state law.) In addition, under the commerce power Congress may regulate pollution in interstate and ocean waters.

Drilling in the Gulf is a privilege that is granted by the US government under prescribed standards. The ageny enforcing those standards was permitted to become a joke under Bush with the described consequences. However, there is NO WAY legally for the US Gov't or state gov'ts in therir area of authority to refuse the obligation to regulate the use of common resources FOR THE COMMON GOOD, including the obligation for cleanup and recovery of damages. While Libertarians may not like the idea of a public trust in natural resources, it goes back to the Institutes of Justinian and is well anchored in American constitutional law from the founding. Either you believe in the rule of law or you believe in robber barons. In this case oil companies are clearly and unequivocally subject to regulation when drilling in waters of the United States and the US Gov't has a statutory and common law obligation recognized by the courts to protect public resources in the public interest, including regulating and cleaning up pollution and recovering damages and imposing civil and criminal penalties where apporpriate.

Posted by: Mimikatz | May 28, 2010 12:06 PM | Report abuse

--"Chait is talking about the (fraudulent, obviously) idea that cutting taxes invariably will raise revenues"--

Are you contending that with each notch up in tax rates you'll bring in more money? Clear up to a tax rate of 100%? When you realize that you can't reconcile that, you *might* have an understanding of the absurdly simple Laffer Curve. In any event, you've just demonstrated the worth of that Harvard education.

Posted by: msoja | May 28, 2010 12:25 PM | Report abuse

"Harvard education"

Or maybe not. Wrong guest blogger! Though the *point* still stands.

Posted by: msoja | May 28, 2010 12:27 PM | Report abuse

--"And, of course, there is a liberal response to that argument, which is simply to say that conservatives are too pessimistic about the capacity humans have to organize things."--

That's another lie and/or misrepresentation. The conservatives I know are quite convinced of "the capacity humans have to organize things." What they are also quite sure about is that people working in government bureaucracies don't have the same incentives to be competent or assiduous in organizing that which isn't theirs, and for which they will not suffer if they fail. There is a big difference there, and you have failed to apprehend it.

Posted by: msoja | May 28, 2010 12:32 PM | Report abuse

"Haven't the locals down there been calling for help from this administration"

Jindal has criticized obama for spending too much and last I heard threatened to refuse fed stimulus money for local projects. Don't know if he actually refused it; maybe like other GOP people he waited until the cameras were gone and then took the money and went around to local people and bragged about how much money he got from DC.

The whole country is yelling at Obama to stop spending, but when he does (defense, Nasa are examples) the very same people protest. Tea partiers recently rallied outside Nasa's cape because Obama was cutting projects even as some of their signs blamed him for the debt.

Posted by: Lomillialor | May 28, 2010 12:35 PM | Report abuse

"Are you contending that with each notch up in tax rates you'll bring in more money? Clear up to a tax rate of 100%?"

Ummm, I don't think so.

While I do know a very few liberals would want a 90% tax rate, most would be happy with a return to the 2000 tax rates, which peak at 39% for the highest bracket I believe. The country seemed to function quite well then.

Conservatives on the other hand routinely make the argument that tax cuts always increase fed revenues.

The reality is there are times/reasons for lowering taxes, and times/reasons for raising taxes. A vast majority of conservatives don't believe that.

Posted by: Lomillialor | May 28, 2010 12:45 PM | Report abuse

"What they are also quite sure about is that people working in government bureaucracies don't have the same incentives to be competent or assiduous in organizing that which isn't theirs, and for which they will not suffer if they fail."

More magical thinking regarding incentives. People have incentives to do well at things that they care about. If people care about making money, they will more likely do well at making money. If people care about solving real problems, they will more likely do well at solving real problems--regardless of the monetary advantage. The oil spill in the gulf will not be cleaned up by people who care about making money. It is, inherently, a money-losing enterprise.

Did you think all those pelican-scrubbing hippies were out there competing with each other for bonuses?

Posted by: slag | May 28, 2010 12:58 PM | Report abuse

--"The oil spill in the gulf will not be cleaned up by people who care about making money. It is, inherently, a money-losing enterprise."--

Every day the oil spews costs BP. You're mistaken.

Posted by: msoja | May 28, 2010 1:07 PM | Report abuse

Lomillalor,

I'm certainly no scientist but from what I understand Governor Jindal has been asking for the President to allow sand burms (sp) to be built up to protect the shores from the onrushing oil. No answer. If I were Jindal I'd do it myself and get permission later but that's just me.

Then there's the issue of the 10 hurricanes forecaster for this year. How is the region better prepared to handle it? I'm 100% against Monday Morning Quarterbacking so I'm asking now. How are they prepared?


I'd love a link to those tea party protests outside NASA please.

And there's good spending and bad spending. Spending millions on sand burms so that you don't end up spending BILLIONS cleaning up would seem like a good investment.

Posted by: visionbrkr | May 28, 2010 1:12 PM | Report abuse

"Every day the oil spews costs BP. You're mistaken."

First, the spill costs BP because we have created a government that makes it cost BP. But that aside, let's assume I am mistaken. What about after the spill stops spilling? Who does it cost then? And have you figured out what are the incentives of those pelican-scrubbing hippies yet?

Posted by: slag | May 28, 2010 1:15 PM | Report abuse

Since you are in China, it's worth pointing out that big government (of the Chinese variety) and threats of capital punishment doesn't categorically eliminate the occurrence of severe accidents. Think benzene spills in drinking water, melamine in milk powder, coal mine collapses, and school building collapses.

Posted by: ggandol | May 28, 2010 1:27 PM | Report abuse

- I saw the Nasa tea partiers on local 35 WOFL Fox channel in the 5 o'clock news about a month or so ago when Obama visited Nasa. Maybe their website has archive footage.

- I believe the sand dunes/dredging was approved by the corps of engineers. I believe it took them a few days to study whether it was a worthy/safe idea. I believe they approved 85% of the specific proposals.

- I agree certain investments are worthy. I am not happy with Obama's sense of urgency (or lack thereof) and his political handling of the oil disaster. He seems politically inept to me these first two years, though I support many of the actual initiatives he has done. I think he has inherited most if not all of his actual problems and is hamstrung in fixing them by an ideological, say-no GOP party which continues to hurt the country in many ways.

- I am not sure Obama, or BP, or anyone else, could do anything more than already has been done (or is being planned) to minimize the impact of the oil disaster.

Posted by: Lomillialor | May 28, 2010 1:30 PM | Report abuse

--"Conservatives on the other hand routinely make the argument that tax cuts always increase fed revenues."--

Cuts often do raise revenues, but that's still a sop to the leftard framing of the issue, which couches everything in terms of pluses or minuses to the behemoth.

Tax cuts invariably increase wealth creation in the private sector.

Posted by: msoja | May 28, 2010 1:45 PM | Report abuse

--"First, the spill costs BP because we have created a government that makes it cost BP."--

Actually, I believe current law limits BP's exposure to damages resulting from its own negligence, but that BP has pledged to pay above that limit. Frankly, I don't understand why the government would want to inject itself between aggrieved parties and those who aggrieve them, but that's what its done with the limits on damages.

In another comment under another post by one of Klein's guest bloggers, I pointed to the case of the TVA (a government chartered entity) and the legal stratagems they are deploying to avoid paying damages in the aftermath of their Emory River ash spill, for which they are entirely responsible. After the Gulf oil spill shakes out, someone might want to compare BP's follow on actions with those of the government itself when it screws up.

Posted by: msoja | May 28, 2010 1:56 PM | Report abuse

"Tax cuts invariably increase wealth creation in the private sector"

The Bush tax cuts helped cause an historic recession that has cost millions of jobs. Tell those people who lost their jobs that their wealthier now.

In the meantime, big corps have indeed become more wealthy, by the tune of several trillion dollars which they are hoarding even as gvmts and households are heavy in debt.

We need to tax some of that bis business wealth and put it into infrastructure improvements, job creation, shoring up Nasa's mission, eductaion improvements, and other critical investments.

Posted by: Lomillialor | May 28, 2010 2:04 PM | Report abuse

Even if BP has limited liability for damages (that is, loss of life, loss of business, damage to property etc of private parties) it still is liable for all costs of the clean-up. Then there are the possibility of civil and criminal penalties for natural resource damage depending on the amount of negligence here. These are tied tio the amount of oil, so it is seriously in BP'
s interest ito stop the flow (as it may have been in their interest to minimize the appearance of the extenht of the flow).

Some people do things because they care and believe in them. It takes money to motivate some other people to do anything, and it takes lots of money in some cases. And some people who started out believing in principles get to believing only in money and how their pile of it reflects their own superiority.

Posted by: Mimikatz | May 28, 2010 2:04 PM | Report abuse

"Cuts often do raise revenues"

And they often don't.

We are now suffering a historic dearth of fed revenues due in large part to Bush's tax cuts.

The trick is knowing when to raise taxes and when to lower them. The GOP only knows when to lower them (all the time).

Posted by: Lomillialor | May 28, 2010 2:07 PM | Report abuse

--"The Bush tax cuts helped cause an historic recession that has cost millions of jobs."--

Nonsense. Abject nonsense. You could argue that the cuts helped increase the deficit, but you could also point to Bush's relentless refusal to reduce spending for the same thing.

When Reagan cut taxes in the eighties, revenue to the government doubled, yet spending outpaced it, and deficits increased. But the private sector did very well. Individuals like to own the fruits of their labors, and tend to do productive things with them.

Posted by: msoja | May 28, 2010 2:23 PM | Report abuse

--"We are now suffering a historic dearth of fed revenues"--

Good. Maybe the pols should toss a bureaucracy or two off the sinking ship.

Posted by: msoja | May 28, 2010 2:26 PM | Report abuse

@Lom: 'Cuts often do raise revenues'. And they often don't. We are now suffering a historic dearth of fed revenues due in large part to Bush's tax cuts."

Then the answer is pretty clear: we need to raise taxes. Obama needs to take the initiative, and announce a package of tax increases now, and not play politics with it and wait until after the November elections.

"The trick is knowing when to raise taxes and when to lower them. The GOP only knows when to lower them (all the time)."

Every time is a good time to let the American people keep a little bit more of their own money. Even though that's just a horrible thing for the economy, and causes recessions.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | May 28, 2010 2:27 PM | Report abuse

I hate to agree with Msoja but he's 100% right. Tax cuts didn't lead to the recession. Deregulation did. Deregulation that btw was formed by a Republican Congress (Gingrich) and signed off on by a Democratic President (Clinton).

Posted by: visionbrkr | May 28, 2010 2:27 PM | Report abuse

--"which they are hoarding"--

That's Chavez's standard accusation. It's the socialist whine after other people's money.

And it's mostly a lie. Unless businesses and people stuff their extra money in mattresses, it is inevitably invested *somewhere*, and therefore, working.

Otherwise, the money is theirs, and even if you can rouse the government to go get some of it for you, you have no moral claim to it, and you are no more than a low thief.

Posted by: msoja | May 28, 2010 2:30 PM | Report abuse

"Frankly, I don't understand why the government would want to inject itself between aggrieved parties and those who aggrieve them, but that's what its done with the limits on damages."

I'm curious as to where you think our court system came from. Microsoft?

It baffles me that, in spite of the fact that you are an American who can probably vote, I still have any faith whatsoever in our government. I guess my faith comes from the knowledge that there are many more Americans who aren't you.

Posted by: slag | May 28, 2010 2:44 PM | Report abuse

visionbrkr,

As for your query about the Obama administration and hurricane preparedness, I think that is also a fair topic on which Obama can be criticized.

The Army Corps recently announced their long term strategy for fortifying the canal system in New Orleans, and the Corps itself said that the solution they intend to apply is not the technologically best option. Of course, large neighborhoods remain blighted and vacant, and no action has been taken on the long term most important solution which is to restore the wetlands that historically were the natural barrier protecting the city from the fiercest impact of the storms as they touched land. Of course, we could also build Dutch-style hi tech flood prevention if we really wanted to spend significant money in order to protect the history, culture, and people of New Orleans.

I wish that the stimulus had included a huge investment in infratructure to rebuild and protect NOLA. But these days, Lomillialor is correct, the deficit hawks rule the roost, and the possibility of the Feds spending a lot of money to do anything new seems very dim.

Posted by: Patrick_M | May 28, 2010 3:01 PM | Report abuse

--"Tax cuts didn't lead to the recession. Deregulation did."--

You need to peruse Wikipedia's Subprime Crisis Impact Timeline...

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Subprime_crisis_impact_timeline

... and then answer: Why are Fannie and Freddie still in business today?

Posted by: msoja | May 28, 2010 3:15 PM | Report abuse

Patrick,

thank you. I'm thinking that instead of the "Louisiana Purchase" maybe Landrieu would have been better suited in demanding the necessary infrastructure. Its not as if bills don't always have attachments that have nothing to do with the primary bill. That i would have respected. I hope for NOLA's sake that this hurricane season isn't as many are saying. I'm thinking the said the same thing last year and it was relatively tame from memory.


As a conservative, tax hater etc, I'd sign on right now for a "x" cent gas tax or whatever that would go towards restoring the area down there.

Posted by: visionbrkr | May 28, 2010 3:16 PM | Report abuse

--"I'm curious as to where you think our court system came from. Microsoft?"--

You have a great facility for (purposely?) misunderstanding simple declarative consecutive sentences. The accusation was not, "The government is staffing the courts with its officials", but "The government is protecting one party in proceedings of justice brought before it." See?

Posted by: msoja | May 28, 2010 3:21 PM | Report abuse

--"Of course, we could also build Dutch-style hi tech flood prevention if we really wanted to spend significant money in order to protect the history, culture, and people of New Orleans."--

Sez the mighty collectivist.

How about "we" let the people that want to live there decide what kind of protection they want to build, allow them to build it, and then allow them to stack all their precious stuff behind it, if that's what they want to do, and if they do it incompetently we allow them to reap that harvest as well.

I'm all for a free country. Aren't you?

I certainly don't know why I should be on the hook for someone who wants live below sea level in an area prone to bad weather behind a seawall built by incompetents. Do you?

Posted by: msoja | May 28, 2010 3:25 PM | Report abuse

--"As a conservative, tax hater etc, I'd sign on right now for a "x" cent gas tax"--

You were offering to pay higher taxes for mediocre education schemes last night, weren't you? Excuse me if I think your bona fides are ... fake.

As a conservative, tax hater, etc., or as a liberal, tax lover, you are entirely free to donate to any number of organizations who will apply the money to clean up efforts, or you could even toodle down there yourself and grab a shovel. No?

Posted by: msoja | May 28, 2010 3:30 PM | Report abuse

Oops. You are entirely free to donate to private charities, yet your wish is that *everyone* be forced to accept your valuation of the matter, as though yours is more important than theirs. Why can't you donate your own money and quit trying to force your fellows into whatever mold pops into your head at the moment?

Posted by: msoja | May 28, 2010 3:36 PM | Report abuse

CBO says the Bush tax cuts helped shift tax burden to the middle-class, reduced incomes, increased debt. That obviously has a negative effect on the economy. It is no coincidence that the biggest tax cuts in a generation are followed by a historic recession.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A61178-2004Aug12.html

The debt has also hurt our ability to fight the recession, and that means bush's tax cuts have exacerbated this recession.

Posted by: Lomillialor | May 28, 2010 3:40 PM | Report abuse

Excerpt from below: "Meanwhile, studies by economists at the Joint Committee on Taxation, the Congressional Budget Office, the Brookings Institution, and elsewhere have found that if tax cuts are not paid for with spending reductions, they are likely to have modest negative effects on the economy over time, because of the negative effects of the increased deficits."

This report was written before the great recession, so no doubt they would re-think the word "modest: above. In any case, I am right to suggest Bush's tax cuts have significantly impacted our economy, the recession, and our ability to end the recession.

http://www.cbpp.org/cms/?fa=view&id=692

"A consistent finding in the academic literature about the effects of tax cuts on the economy is that these effects are typically modest. In the short run, well-designed tax cuts can help to boost an economy that is in a recession. In the longer run, well-designed tax cuts can have a modest positive impact if they are fully paid for. For example, the recent Treasury analysis found that if the President’s tax cuts were made permanent and the costs of the tax cuts were paid for by reductions in programs, economic growth would increase by a few hundredths of one percentage point annually. Meanwhile, studies by economists at the Joint Committee on Taxation, the Congressional Budget Office, the Brookings Institution, and elsewhere have found that if tax cuts are not paid for with spending reductions, they are likely to have modest negative effects on the economy over time, because of the negative effects of the increased deficits. Tax-cut proponents often claim that the economy will be badly damaged if the tax cuts are not extended; these claims are without foundation."

Posted by: Lomillialor | May 28, 2010 3:57 PM | Report abuse

visionbrkr,

In the spirit of bipartisanship, let us not forget that Sen. Landrieu sought the $300M at the request of Governor Jindal, the Governor issued a statement confirming that that the idea originated within his administration (http://thehill.com/homenews/senate/79823-sen-landrieu-hits-back-over-louisiana-purchase ).

And I thought that the Senator made a not entirely unreasonable argument that her state (where entire hospitals had been destroyed and large numbers of the poor had been injured and displaced), had some pressing additional need for Medicaid funds as a result of Katrina. I was still opposed to adding that extra money in to the bill, but I thought she at least had a better argument on the merits than Ben Nelson ever had for a free ride for Nebraska.

Posted by: Patrick_M | May 28, 2010 5:06 PM | Report abuse

"In my view as an observer, this is a healthy argument to have, and one that we do not have nearly as often as we should, mainly because the conservative side has dropped out of making serious points and instead indulges too often in magical thinking."

Beyond which, pretty much any interaction between the left and the right seems to invariably turn into a scene from the Big Lebowski. All we're missing is a Pomeranian.

Posted by: slag | May 28, 2010 5:17 PM | Report abuse

--"In any case, I am right to suggest Bush's tax cuts have significantly impacted our economy, the recession, and our ability to end the recession."--

Except for the fact that the Bush tax cuts really had nothing to do with the housing bubble, and the breaking of that bubble is what tipped the economy over, you're entirely correct. Which is to say, not at all.

Posted by: msoja | May 28, 2010 7:11 PM | Report abuse

The Republican approach is to let corporations self-govern. We let BP govern itself, and they destroyed the Gulf of Mexico.

In the modern world, you have two choices: the government, or corporations. Demonizing the government leaves corporations as our saviors, and anyone who thinks they have your best interest at heart will soon have his bank account drained and his home repossessed.

Posted by: AxelDC | June 1, 2010 4:31 PM | Report abuse

It costs less for them not to do anything than for them to fix it. BP is more interested in limiting its liability and preserving its PR image.

Would BP like to stop the flow? Sure, but only because of the lost revenues and PR damage. They don't care about the ecological destruction of the Gulf of Mexico, and only care about the health of the people of coastal Louisiana up to the point that they can be sued in courts.

A democratic government is supposed to have the public interest at heart, but a corporation makes no such pretense.

--"The oil spill in the gulf will not be cleaned up by people who care about making money. It is, inherently, a money-losing enterprise."--

Every day the oil spews costs BP. You're mistaken.

Posted by: msoja

Posted by: AxelDC | June 1, 2010 4:34 PM | Report abuse

"Katrina and BP, Bush and Obama"

Let's see... on the one hand you've got a President who can't manage to plug an oil well a mile under the ocean with no known technology to do so, no existing government force created and maintained over decades to deal with situations like this, no equipment known to fix the problem in existence, and no way to clean up an area larger than most states with most of the oil underwater.

On the other hand you had a President who couldn't pick up the phone and order tens of thousands of troops under his command to get into their trucks and drive into a city, despite evidence that lone reporters were able to drive all the way in "the chaos" to snap photos of people dying and get them back to the office in time for press.

Yeah, I can see the similarities...

Posted by: rmnelson | June 1, 2010 5:09 PM | Report abuse

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