Even by the rock-bottom standards of “bipartisan” politics, the logic behind the infrastructure deal cut by the president and a collection of Democratic and Republican senators was . . . less than impressive.
As Charles Cooke pointed out on Thursday, at a point when a deal had been rumored, but not formally announced, a bipartisan agreement on a “mini” (just the one trillion) infrastructure deal would allow the Democrats
to recruit the 60 bipartisan votes for the Manchin-friendly infrastructure package and to turn around once that’s done and get everything else they want at a simple 50-vote threshold. If Schumer is telling the truth when he says that the Senate will do both bills — and again, one can never be sure — Republicans have decided to give up all their negotiating power and, in effect, to permit the spending of trillions of dollars (the Democrats want six trillion!) that they oppose.
Except, perhaps, as an elaborate form of political Kabuki that would allow “moderate” (I’ll use that term) Republicans to vote for some (relatively popular) infrastructure spending, but against the trillions to come, such a deal might make some sense, particularly where they felt vulnerable to Democratic challengers. Similarly, either the Democrats who signed up for this deal were simply props to complete the bipartisan illusion (I doubt it) or they were calculating that they too could vote for the limited package and then rely on the reality of a closely divided Senate to trim back the trillions contained in a second bill — reconciliation or no reconciliation.
In the event, Joe Biden wasted no time before trashing the illusions on which these cunning plans (if that is what they were) were based.
Politicians in Washington renege on their bipartisan promises all the time, but what are we to make of a deal in which one side admits it is pulling a bait and switch from the start? That was the astonishing news Thursday as President Biden and Speaker Nancy Pelosi endorsed a bipartisan Senate infrastructure deal even as they said the price of their support is getting the rest of their agenda too.
Mr. Biden stood with five Democratic and five Republican Senators at the White House and endorsed their trillion-dollar infrastructure outline. Back-slapping and self-plaudits all around. But two hours later the President said he won’t sign the infrastructure bill unless the Senate also passes the other $3 trillion or more he has proposed in tax increases and multiple new entitlement programs.
Most politicians at least wait a decent interval to pull a double cross. But Mrs. Pelosi and Mr. Biden are trying to prevent a revolt on the left. So they are now holding a bipartisan deal hostage to the left’s demands. This is political blackmail aimed at Democrats like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema who are part of the bipartisan Senate Gang of 10: Unless they sign on to all of the progressive tax-and-spend agenda, they won’t get their bipartisan deal. And Mr. Biden and progressives will blame them for the failure.
The move prompted one of the 11 Republicans who signed onto the bipartisan deal — Sen. Lindsey Graham — to vow to vote against the plan if Democrats carry through with their tactic. And Republicans are privately warning that the Democratic tactics could cost even more support from Republican senators, according to Senate GOP sources.
Graham told Politico that the five Republican senators who negotiated with Biden on Thursday had not informed him about the plan to link the infrastructure bill and a reconciliation bill and said that those Republicans may not have known about it.
“Most Republicans could not have known that,” Graham said. “There’s no way. You look like a f*cking idiot now.”
“I don’t mind bipartisanship, but I’m not going to do a suicide mission,” Graham said.
At least 10 Republican votes will be needed in the Senate to reach the 60 votes required to overcome the filibuster. Graham’s decision could spell trouble for the bill of the five other GOP senators who signed up to the infrastructure framework also refuse to support Biden’s plan.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy is accusing the Biden administration of being “disingenuous” in saying they were supportive of the scaled-down bipartisan infrastructure package, before abruptly demanding a larger package be passed in conjunction — adding that it will make future negotiations on major priorities more difficult.
President Biden on Thursday endorsed a single bipartisan infrastructure deal to spend $1.2 trillion over eight years, before pivoting at a press conference hours later, stating that he’s “not signing it” without a second deal containing more spending on “human infrastructure” than was agreed to.
Biden’s comments echoed those of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who told reporters that the bill would not come to the House floor without an accompanying reconciliation bill to address social spending.
McCarthy said he doesn’t believe the Democrats’ push for two bills will garner the support to pass both chambers, adding that he thinks the window to strike a deal that both parties could support has closed.
Different parts of the administration tried to soften the impact of Biden’s comments by coming out with a confusing series of “clarifications,” with the confusion intended, perhaps, to allow people with entirely different objectives some sort of reason neither to abandon ship nor to sink it.
Joe Biden said the quiet part out loud and paid a price for it.
Reveling in his bipartisan win on infrastructure Thursday, the president declared that he would not sign the deal he’d just endorsed unless a separate bill including his other domestic priorities arrived on his desk, too. Whether deliberate or not, the comment set off a cascade of events in and out of the Oval Office that had aides putting out fires the next day and raised questions about the future of their prized $1 trillion bipartisan deal.
With Republicans threatening to abandon the deal, Steve Ricchetti, one of Biden’s lead negotiators, who a day earlier had been credited by the president for his efforts shepherding the deal, scrambled to contain the fallout on Capitol Hill. Both he and Louisa Terrell, the White House top congressional liaison, told the Senators involved in negotiations that Biden was enthusiastic about the deal and would soon hit the road to tout its benefits as well as the merits of bipartisanship.
According to two sources familiar with his efforts, Ricchetti told Republicans that the White House was going to clarify the comments.
A White House official disputed the notion that Ricchetti suggested Biden may have misspoke — an impression that those two sources said was left . . .
But, elsewhere, the White House gave off hints of trying to walk back Biden’s comments without acknowledging they were doing so.
The president personally spoke to Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) on Friday — the top negotiator for Democrats — and told her he would “fight to pass the Bipartisan Agreement, as he committed to the group,” according to a White House readout of the call. The statement was careful to note that Biden had mentioned his support for the reconciliation bill while standing alongside the group of senators during a press availability outside of the White House Thursday.
Psaki, meanwhile, never explicitly reiterated Biden’s threat to not sign the infrastructure bill if the reconciliation package didn’t come, too. She told reporters that the president “fully expects, hopes, plans to sign both into law and he will leave it to leaders in Congress to determine the timeline and the sequencing.”
Republicans weren’t pleased with the line from Psaki and pushed back on the idea that they would have agreed to their deal if they knew it was conditioned on the partisan bill. But Democrats remained confident that the infrastructure package is not in jeopardy . . .
But now (Saturday), Biden is sounding some sort of retreat.
The Washington Post:
On Thursday, Biden declared that he would sign the two bills together only. “If this is the only thing that comes to me, I’m not signing it,” Biden said of the bipartisan compromise. “It’s in tandem.” But on Saturday, he said, “I gave my word to support the infrastructure plan, and that’s what I intend to do. . . . I fully stand behind it without reservation or hesitation.”
Biden’s switch came after Republicans bitterly complained that he had made it appear that they’d effectively signed off on a strategy that allowed the president to have a bipartisan infrastructure measure along with a much bigger Democrats-only spending package that he refers to as the American Families Plan.
“At a press conference after announcing the bipartisan agreement, I indicated that I would refuse to sign the infrastructure bill if it was sent to me without my Families Plan and other priorities, including clean energy,” Biden said in a statement Saturday afternoon.
“To be clear: our bipartisan agreement does not preclude Republicans from attempting to defeat my Families Plan; likewise, they should have no objections to my devoted efforts to pass that Families Plan and other proposals in tandem.”
He added that his comments “created the impression that I was issuing a veto threat on the very plan I had just agreed to, which was certainly not my intent.”
It was unclear if Biden’s statement would revive momentum behind the fragile deal that he outlined triumphantly on Thursday, flanked by five Democrats and five Republicans who had hammered it out. Many liberal Democrats have said they would support the bipartisan deal only if the other, bigger spending package was passed at the same time. Some Democrats are especially concerned that the bipartisan package does not do more to take on climate change.
To be clear, what those Democrats are objecting to (beyond the amount of dollars involved) is that much of the spending in the proposed bipartisan agreement was the way that the money was to be spent.
As I wrote a million years ago (well, on Thursday night):
At least this package has the merit that the billions to be spent on, say, “resilience” make rather more sense than alternative plans to invest in premature or inefficient green technologies, assuming they are spent wisely (no small assumption). Regardless of the damage that climate change may or may not bring in its wake, toughening our infrastructure would almost certainly pay for itself. That’s true, say, of sea-defenses for our low-lying coastal cities or for burying electric cables underground, particularly in regions such as the northeast.
Back to the Washington Post:
The coming days will make it clear how much damage has been done. Shortly after Biden’s news conference Thursday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said, “Less than two hours after publicly commending our colleagues and endorsing the bipartisan agreement, the president took the extraordinary step of threatening to veto it. . . . Less than two hours. It almost makes your head spin. An expression of bipartisanship, and then an ultimatum on behalf of your left-wing base.”
But Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), a backer of the compromise, issued a statement shortly after Biden’s reversal Saturday suggesting the deal might be salvageable.
“Washington has been talking about truly modernizing our infrastructure for decades,” Portman tweeted. “This week Republicans and Democrats agreed on an historic bipartisan framework and we should pass it because it is good for the economy and the country.”
Still, some Republicans are now wary that they could be trapped into negotiating a deal on a package that will only be overwritten by a much larger spending plan. And Democrats, who want a bigger deal, worry that it’ll never happen if they approve a smaller one.
“Some Republicans” are right.
So, what now?
Pure guesswork on my part, but, if some GOP senators can be found who will stick with it, the bipartisan bill will be put to the vote, so the names of those voting against are on record and, whether or not it fails to receive the necessary support, Biden will then slim down his full tax and spending package by (just) enough for it to pass via the reconciliation processwith Democratic support alone.
Given my customary forecasting prowess, I will doubtless be proved wrong. As to the wisdom of the level of spending that the administration has in mind, I’ll leave the last word to Larry Summers, who, despite softening his earlier criticism of Biden’s spending plans, does not appear to be “evolving” as rapidly as the White House might wish:
It is important for the sustainability of the progressive enterprise, that it be managed in a macroeconomically prudent way. And I am concerned that we are injecting more demand into the economy than the potential supply of the economy is likely to work out to be. And that will generate overheating. That filling up the bathtub feels great, but if you don’t stop it in time, the bathtub overflows. And it’s much harder to clean up than it would have been to prevent. I have expressed the concern for some months now that we are overheating the economy. And unfortunately, the inflation data has come in way above consensus forecasts . . .
And then there is the tax . . .
The Capital Record
We released the latest of a series of podcasts, the Capital Record. Follow the link to see how to subscribe (it’s free!). The Capital Record, which appears weekly, is designed to make use of another medium to deliver Capital Matters’ defense of free markets. Financier and NRI trustee David L. Bahnsen hosts discussions on economics and finance in this National Review Capital Matters podcast, sponsored by National Review Institute. Episodes feature interviews with the nation’s top business leaders, entrepreneurs, investment professionals, and financial commentators.
In the 23rd episode David was joined by our very own Daniel Tenreiro to take a spin around the Capital Matters world, looking at woke capitalism, the challenges in Big Tech, and the big picture of today’s economy.
And the Capital Matters week that was . . .
Dan McLaughlin on Goldman Sachs Group Inc. v. Arkansas Teacher Retirement System:
The investors said that they were defrauded by not knowing of various bad business practices at Goldman, mainly before the 2008 credit crisis. But to identify statements that supposedly concealed those practices, the plaintiffs pointed only to vague, generic positive statements about the investment bank:
“We have extensive procedures and controls that are designed to identify and address conflicts of interest. . . . Our clients’ interests always come first. . . . Integrity and honesty are at the heart of our business.”
Goldman Sachs argued, quite reasonably, that this is not the sort of thing that moves markets. Everybody expects companies to say these things even when they are not true. The Second Circuit, however, concluded that the Supreme Court’s prior decisions had precluded it from considering the nature of the statements at class certification, since the materiality of the statements was a merits issue and not a requirement of proof at class certification. But if the judge can’t look at the price or the statements, what evidence is left?
Justice Barrett’s opinion allowed courts to look at the nature of the statements in order to give at least some tether to reality to the speculative inquiry into what the stock price would have done if the statements had not been made . . .
Under new management, the SEC does its bit . . .
For the past two years, the SEC carefully studied and weighed the impact of proxy advisers — firms that sell voting recommendations to investors during proxy season — before finalizing a new rule to address concern over conflicts of interests, erroneous voting recommendations, and the inability for companies to respond or point out problems with these recommendations in a meaningful way.
Given the thousands of shareholder proposals that an institutional investor must vote each year, asset managers have increasingly outsourced the responsibility to proxy-advisory firms. But the drawbacks of this arrangement have been a bipartisan concern for securities regulators for over a decade
The trouble with outsourcing shareholder voting, a question taken up by the SEC in its recently halted reforms, is whether investment advisers can fulfill their fiduciary duty to clients while relying on third parties for key corporate-governance decisions without conducting their own diligence. In the worst cases identified by experts, investors often automatically vote proposals immediately following recommendations issued from an adviser — a practice known as robovoting.
To make matters worse, the main provisions of the rules were not set to come into effect until next year, meaning the commission staff will have to reexamine changes they just finished implementing months ago without any new data. The limited data that is available from 2020 showed a slight yet encouraging decline in robovoting.
Stepping back to consider the broader SEC priorities indicated by the move, what is perhaps most troubling is a nod to empower more passive voting and less active participation in the shareholder process. Throughout the 2021 proxy season so far, proxy-advisory firms, rather than investors themselves, have called the shots in hotly debated corporate matters. Meaningful debates over the material proposals among shareholders should be encouraged but should not hinge on large blocks of passive funds following the recommendations of a third party (with no fiduciary duty to those invested in the company).
The, well, woke nature of “woke capitalism” — a phenomenon intertwined with “socially responsible” investment (SRI), with stakeholder capitalism at its base — has obscured that the way in which this combination works owes far more to fascism than to socialism. Nearly 90 years ago, the progressive writer Roger Shaw described the New Deal as “employing Fascist means to gain liberal ends.” Overwrought, perhaps, but not without some truth. He would recognize what is going on now for what it is.
Underpinning the notion of “stakeholder capitalism,” a concept that has taken the C-suites of some of America’s largest companies by storm, is the idea that a company should be run for the benefit of all its “stakeholders,” a conveniently hazy term that can be defined to include (among others) workers, customers, and “the community,” as well as the shareholders who, you know, own the business. It’s a form of expropriation based on the myth that a corporation that puts its shareholders first must necessarily put everyone else last. In reality, an enterprise that, to a greater or lesser extent, fails to consider the needs of various — to use that word — stakeholders in mind, customers, most obviously (but certainly not only) is unlikely to flourish, and nor, therefore, will its owners.
Stakeholder capitalism is not only a threat to private property, but also, by not much of a stretch of the imagination, to individual freedom. To understand why, take a step back . . .
Lina Khan, a noted proponent of expanding and altering U.S. antitrust law, was confirmed last week as a commissioner to the Federal Trade Commission. Mere hours later, President Biden promoted her to chair of the agency. Khan’s influence is already evident in the legislation introduced earlier this month in the House Judiciary Committee and will no doubt influence the work of the FTC. It’s a shame that consumers won’t benefit from her appointment . . .
Take, for instance, Amazon’s move into selling diapers, which many categorized as a classic example of predatory pricing. It’s worth noting that Amazon isn’t a major player in the diaper market; wholesale club prices for diapers are about the same price as Amazon’s. After Amazon bought Quidsi — the parent company to Diapers.com — it tried for several years to run it as a profitable brand, but eventually had to close it down.
So even if Amazon had deliberately driven Quidsi out of business, Amazon would still face competitive threats from BJs, Sam’s Club, Walmart, and Target, which are expanding their online offerings; they’re moving into Amazon’s home turf.
Most important for consumers, nothing Amazon did in the diaper space was harmful. In fact, this kind of competition drives progress in the marketplace — to the benefit of consumers. Why, then, should we fundamentally change antitrust law to solve a problem that doesn’t exist?
While diversity of opinion is important in academic circles, much more important are consistent and clear rules of the road when acting as a regulator. Putting in place a chairperson who is a critic of the current state of antitrust law may be setting up conflicts between the FTC and the courts. That makes regulated companies guinea pigs for Khan’s ambitions for antitrust laws.
Installed as a powerful regulator, her outspoken enthusiasm for altering and greatly expanding the role of antitrust regulation makes for an uncertain business environment. It’s likely that consumers’ best interests will be secondary to companies’ compliance with ever-changing antitrust law. Consumers need progress and improvements, not a tech industry afraid to innovate because it is looking over its collective shoulder at new regulatory threats cooked up in the Ivory Tower.
Sean-Michael Pigeon interviewed Jake Ward, the president of Connected Commerce Council (3C), a nonprofit membership group that supports and advocates on behalf of digitally empowered small businesses:
Research on the impact of digital tools over the past 18 months has been nothing short of staggering. Digital tools, technologies, marketplaces were the lifeline during COVID-19; they were the safety net of American small business. They are the reason we aren’t in a depression right now. A once-in-a-century global pandemic that puts entire countries in a volatile place was lessened significantly because of these tools and services.
There is no good time to have a global pandemic, but if you’re going to have one, then the best time possible is when you can pivot your Main Street bookstore to an online inventory system and use online advertising to grow your customer base and stay in business. Now businesses can do it for pennies on the dollar, which is made possible because of billions of dollars invested by America’s leading technology companies. Yes, some of them are Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon, but also dozens more companies that sewed this safety net together.
I’m pretty sure that 40 percent [3C’s research reports 37 percent] of American small businesses said that without access to these tools and services, they would have had to close their doors permanently or at least for a period of time during the pandemic. That would have been a tremendous amount of job loss and money taken out of the economy for an indeterminate amount of time.
There is no evidence — none — that large technology companies are bad for small businesses. There are no economic studies that say that. There are no actual backed-up anecdotes that say that. Access to digital tools and services are good for small businesses. Vertical integration for small businesses is critical to success in the digital age . . .
Bailing out the States
According to Russ Heimerich from the California Business, Consumer Services and Housing Agency, “The big question is can we spend it all.” One of the ingenious ways Governor Gavin Newsom wants to spend taxpayer money is on paying off traffic tickets.
What is most frustrating is that there are real issues California should address. California has been engulfed in wildfires that have turned the Golden State red and brown. The California fire department has repeatedly asked for more money, and providing extra funding would be a genuinely worthwhile investment. Police departments in California, particularly the LAPD, are low on officers and are in need of better resources, too. The Left has constantly cried out for increased police training. However, it seems they will pass up the opportunity to pay for it.
While Russ Heimerich may find it difficult to spend all of the excess money we have printed, it’s not actually that hard to find good ways of spending relief money. Unfortunately, critical pieces of California’s police, fire, and infrastructure systems will not benefit. California is not the only state that has extra coins in its coffers because of profligate congressional spending. Let’s hope other states make more sensible decisions.
President Biden’s recently enacted American Rescue Plan Act gives states billions for COVID-19 relief, but with strings attached: States that take it are effectively banned from cutting taxes through 2024. The policy not only has extraordinary repercussions for the nature of states’ power — it would also slow states’ recovery.
The Act says states can’t use their federal funds to “directly or indirectly offset” revenue loss from a tax cut. If they do, the Treasury secretary can take their grant money back. Defenders of this “tax mandate” say it ensures states use their federal grants for COVID relief, not to “pay for” tax cuts. But that makes no sense, given that the Act otherwise gives states broad leeway. The mandate’s true purpose is obvious: to push all states to adopt policies favored by the high-tax states that are losing residents to lower-tax states.
The tax mandate isn’t necessary to make sure states use their grant money for COVID relief. The Act elsewhere requires states to tell the Treasury Department what they used their relief money for. If a state receives, say, $5 billion, it has to show that it actually spent $5 billion for purposes the Act allows. A state has to pay back any portion of the money that it spends on anything else. That rule ensures states use their federal grants for COVID relief. The tax mandate does not: A state could run afoul of it even if it spends the full amount of its grant on federally approved purposes . . .
If you ever wanted Google to stop sending you eerily targeted ads, there is good news on the horizon. Google and Facebook have recently come under scrutiny for allegedly selling users’ metadata (possibly to China) and for large-scale data breaches. Facebook, in particular, got into hot water for tracking data with the Facebook app even when the app was not in use. The vast majority (93 percent) of Internet users want more control over their data and information. Enter DuckDuckGo.
DuckDuckGo is a web-browsing service that champions the privacy of the user. The search-engine service has been profitable for years, and DuckDuckGo is looking to expand its reach. A new piece from WIRED explains why DuckDuckGo is primed for growth in the tech sector . . .
First, we learned that Bernie Sanders is opposed to raising a tax. Now, we learn that he wants to partially restore a tax deduction primarily used by the wealthy.
On Sunday, Sanders said he wouldn’t support an infrastructure bill that included any increase in the gas tax. On Tuesday, Bloomberg reported that Sanders has drafted plans to partially revive the state and local tax (SALT) deduction for some taxpayers.
Taxpayers can deduct the amount they pay in state and local taxes from their incomes for their federal tax returns. The 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) capped the SALT deduction at $10,000 as a pay-for to reduce the bill’s impact on the deficit. Very few Americans pay over $10,000 in state and local taxes. The ones who do mostly live in high-tax (read: Democrat-controlled) states and have large property-tax bills (read: They own valuable property) . . .
First, there was Deep Ecology, a view that the earth is a living entity and that humans are the vermin species afflicting Gaia.
Then, there was “nature rights,” the belief that nature should have the enforceable right to “exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution,” a neo-right-to-life that could be enforced in court by anyone and everyone. The idea, of course, is to use the courts to stifle human enterprise, particularly of the “free” kind.
Now, there is its first cousin — “ecocide” — the drive to create a “fifth international crime against peace,” and punish environmental despoilation as an evil equally odious to genocide and ethnic cleansing. The idea is to land corporate CEOs in the Hague . . .
Americans don’t give much thought to the European Union. EU elites, however, obsess over America.
Embodying that obsession, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen’s “geopolitical Commission,” aims to enhance the EU’s role on the world stage, by boosting the importance of the euro — the currency shared by most of its members — along with its capital markets, banks, and payment systems not only within the EU, but beyond it. The Commission (the “EC”) is keen to create EU champions, and to take King Dollar, Anglo-American capital markets, and banks, as well as credit-card networks, such as Mastercard and Visa, down a peg or two. The EC’s January 19th manifesto titled, “The European economic and financial system: fostering openness, strength and resilience,” captures the dirigiste and mercantilist spirit driving its project. Brussels has retail payments and digital-finance strategies, is developing a sustainable-finance strategy, and plans to bolster “the euro as the default currency for the denomination of sustainable financial products.”
The eurocracy’s bias toward dirigisme and its determination to press on with building an “ever closer Europe” show few signs of having been shaken by, say, its mishandling of the procurement and roll-out of COVID-19 vaccines, the repudiation that Brexit represented, or the euro-zone crisis and its aftermath. And then there is the anti-Americanism. Many of the EU’s leadership resent the EU’s dependence on — and the primacy of — the U.S. dollar, banks, payment systems, tech giants, and, if more ambiguously, American hard power . . .
Small Business and the Pandemic
Nearly every business suffered during the pandemic. Major retailers including J.C. Penny went bankrupt, and nationwide chains such as AMC Theaters may never fully return. However, perhaps no sector was hurt more than small businesses, which struggled to retain customers and keep costs low during the pandemic. Fortunately, we are seeing that small businesses are better positioned to rebound from the recent crisis than J.C. Penny or AMC. But they can do even better if politicians enact sensible policies that facilitate a strong economy.
The pandemic was a boon for some major corporations, especially tech companies, which could capitalize on e-commerce and Internet ad revenue. Economic growth is not a zero-sum game, but it’s still unclear how much of this growth came at the expense of local businesses. The Wall Street Journal reported that “only” 200,000 mom-and-pop firms closed in the last year. That would be a closure rate of around 8.5 percent. However, that number runs counter to a 2021 April survey that found that 22 percent of small businesses were closed, which is virtually identical to the number of businesses closed at the height of the pandemic . . .
Finally, we produced the Capital Note, our “daily” (well, Tuesday–Friday, anyway). Topics covered included: the EU goes after Google, China clobbers crypto, the hurdles to Bitcoin as digital gold, housing, stonks, nukes, doing business in China, the memefication of markets, the Supreme Court rules against shareholders of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, investors anticipate a capital-gains hike, the complicated conservatorships of government-sponsored enterprises, infrastructure, food inflation, pension plans and low yield, a little local difficulty for electric vehicles, and shrinkflation.
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