Ben Bernanke, the Fed and the Tea Party

By Lorenzo

Ben Bernanke is not a Tea Party sort of person. An academic appointed as Chair of the US Federal Reserve (“the Fed”) by a Republican President (Bush II) and re-appointed by a Democrat President (Obama) who helped organise the bailout of Wall St in response to the Global Financial Crisis (GFC), he is the epitome of a New York-Washington establishment that the Tea Party righteously organises against. Nor is the Fed on their list of favourite institutions


Nevertheless, there is a connection between the former and the Tea Party. The connection is economic stress.

These thoughts were prompted by reading a paper (pdf) by five political scientists on the Tea Party. They see the election of Barack Obama (the first African-American president) as being the triggering event in the coalescing of the Tea Party, which the paper analyses as being primarily driven by an aggrieved sense of entitlement.

Getting beyond the R-word

I have tended to be sceptical of the “it’s all about racism” commentaries on the Tea Party, since the R-word gets bandied around far too much in hostile commentaries on conservative and right-of-centre politics. I have previously expressed scepticism about an analysis of Obama’s 2008 victory which claimed that racial antipathy depressed his vote (pdf), a scepticism reinforced by his robust re-election in 2012. Obama has twice managed to get a majority of votes cast, which makes him one of only three postwar Presidents to do so. Giving him those extra 4 percentage points of the popular vote the study alleges racism cost him would have made him the most electorally successful non-incumbent in the postwar era:

Obama - Inauguration 2008

Johnson 1964 61.1%
Nixon 1972 60.7%
Reagan 1984 58.8%
Eisenhower 1956 57.4%
Eisenhower 1952 55.2%
Bush I 1988 53.4%
Obama 2008 52.9%
Obama 2012 51.0%
Reagan 1980 50.8%
Bush II 2004 50.7%
Carter 1976 50.1%

The author of the aforementioned study has updated his data and continues to claim that Obama lost about 4 percentage points in both elections. Which makes me even more sceptical, since Obama being President for four years makes him very much a specific politician rather than a member of a category.

The authors of the study of the Tea Party are very careful to distinguish the Tea Party from mainstream conservatism and their analysis, based on careful empirical work, is much broader than simple racial angst. The paper’s thesis about a rather more general aggrieved sense of entitlement has substance to it. What surprised me about the paper, however, was the total lack of discussion of the economic context, which strikes me as being crucial.

Frustrating economic stress

This is not to deny that the election of a liberal academic African-American President would push a whole lot of such buttons (though the Obama Presidency does not strike me as being all that liberal in the American context; Obama has been much more the Chicago corporatist his past career suggested he would be while his foreign policy has been rather moderate Republican). Nor that health care has long been a major dividing line in US politics–though again, that Obamacare was based on Romneycare again indicates how centrist Obama has actually been.

Not, perhaps, a broad cross-section of the US

Not, perhaps, a broad cross-section of the US.

The point is not that the authors were wrong to focus on a sense of aggrieved entitlement–a sense motivating much Tea Party activism that “their” America was slipping away from them–but that such angst tends to have much more power in periods of economic stress. The obvious example being the 1930s Depression rescuing the National Socialist German Worker’s Party (NSDAP) from fringe status, providing the economic context which enabled it to become the largest political party in the Reichstag. Similarly, the Great Recession is surely a crucial part of the context for the Tea Party.

This is not to equate the Tea Party with the Nazi Party; among many differences, the traditions the Tea Party seeks to invoke and parades itself as defending are profoundly different. Tom Wolfe’s rejoinder to Gunther Grass (“Why is it that the ‘dark night of fascism’ is always falling on the United States—and always landing on Europe?”) has lost none of its bite (particularly given recent political developments in Europe). The point of the example is a much more basic one–economic stress is a powerful motivator of the politics of frustration, however differently such may manifest in different political contexts.

Central bank failure

Which brings me back to Ben Bernanke. The 1930s Depression and the Great Recession have several things in common; including being caused by central banks. The 1929 Crash, which notionally triggered the 1930s Depression, followed the US Federal Reserve acting to “pop” the late 1920s stock market boom. More fundamentally, the US Federal Reserve and (especially) the Bank of France acted to increase the value of gold that drove down the price level across goldzone countries. The dramatic and ongoing deflation drove down incomes, drove up bankruptcies (debt being the ultimate “sticky price“) and catastrophically reduced economic activity, with recovery not starting until countries abandoned (pdf) the gold standard and its golden fetters.

0831_gold_630x420-1358881868486(WARNING: I am not naturally mathematical, so the following represents my attempt to adapt the equation of exhange to a gold standard.) One way to express this is that, under the gold standard, and treating demand to hold gold as having a stable relationship with output, Gg = Py. G is the global stock of gold (the medium of account in the gold standard), g is the conversion rate of gold to currency, P is the price level and y is output (of goods and services). It is important to realise that g is not the price of gold–gold has no specific price under a gold standard–it is the fixed conversion constraint on currency (i.e. it is what makes gold matter). Changes in the value of gold can only register in changes in the prices across goods and services (that is, the price level, or P).

Rearranging the equation, P = Gg/y.  So, if the stock of gold increases faster than output, the price level rises (as it did in the 1896-1914 period). If the stock of gold increases slower than output, the price level falls (as it did in the 1873-1896 period). To put it another way, the price of gold is 1/P, the inverse of the price level (actually g/P, but the point holds since g is fixed), and can only be observed through changes in the price level.

The Gg = Py equation assumes that the demand to hold gold is in a stable relationship with output. That is a reasonable working assumption for the 1873-1914 apotheosis of gold, when the Bank of England acted as primus inter pares among the central banks, managing the system, and countries entered at rates of g appropriate to their price levels and/or accepted the necessary adjustment costs (leaving the goldzone if said costs became too high). Indeed, much of the point of entering the goldzone was easy access to sterling and its capital markets as well as a Bank of England-managed monetary and financial system.


But a stable relationship between demand to hold gold and output is not a necessary feature. If we include h (the level of “hoarded” gold; by the far the most important element of which is the reserves held by central banks) so that (G-h)g = Py and P = (G-h)g/y then the equation can incorporate such shifts in demand to hold gold. Increases in the demand to hold gold for a given stock and output have the same effect as a reduction in stock of gold in the simplified equation while decreases in the demand to hold gold for a given stock and output have the same effect as increases in the stock of gold in the simplified equation.

From 1928, both the US Federal Reserve and the Bank of France effectively “sanitised” (pdf) increasing stocks of gold; that is, raised the demand for gold by presiding over significant and continuing increases in gold reserves. The falling price level (reflecting the rising value of gold) drove down incomes (income being price times quantity) leading to falling output. (One of the tricky elements about analysing such equations of exchange is that the terms are not independent.) A falling price level raised the return on holding cash, which encouraged a shift from assets to cash, and so asset price collapses. With income expectations and the value of assets falling, investment collapsed. As incomes streams fell, the burden of debts rose, leading to increasing bankruptcies and mounting “bad loans” until major banks collapsed. As one paper expressed it (pdf), central banks continued to kick the global economy when it was down until it lost consciousness.

gold-reserves2As central banks dominated gold holdings, the gold standard operated however they decided it would operate. In particular, the US Federal Reserve had about 45% of the world gold reserves; if it refused to take responsibility for managing the system (as happened after the illness and death of New York Reserve Governor Benjamin Strong), then disaster was only a matter of time. Especially once the Bank of France decided to let its gold stocks rise without increasing monetary liabilities–effectively removing the gold inflow to France from the goldzone monetary system/raising the demand for gold. (Gold flowed into France because the franc conversion rate was set below that appropriate for French prices, meaning that gold bought more in France than elsewhere, so naturally flowed into France.) So, the answer to the question “what caused the Great Depression?” is “the disastrous policies of central banks”.

And central banks again

So, what caused the Great Recession? Funny you should ask that. It was also a problem of central banks, though not of golden fetters, but of green fetters, and a new way of obsessing over the value of money at the expense of its level of use in transactions.

With the surge in Asian (particularly post-1979, Chinese) output into the global economy, rising Asian incomes meant that the global propensity to save was pushing on the propensity to invest, pushing up asset prices and pushing down real interest rates. The Great Moderation had produced a long period of low inflation, so both nominal and real interest rates were low. The bursting of various housing bubbles in the US in 2005-6 led to the sub-prime crisis of 2007. At this stage, there was a financial crisis, but these had happened before during the Great Moderation.


In 2007, and particularly 2008, there was a sharp tightening (pdf) of monetary conditions. A surge in European demand for $US (the global reserve currency) and falling inflation expectations (itself a sign of monetary tightening), led to a sharp rise in real interest rates. The Fed, as “manager” of the global reserve currency, was engaged in a major “passive” tightening of monetary policy by failing to respond to the dramatically increased demand to hold $US. Tightening monetary policy is a very bad thing to do during a major financial crisis. To liquidity problems (getting hold of funds to transact) are added solvency problems (not having the expected income to pay existing obligations), making the financial crisis much worse. Just to add to the demand shock, the Fed started paying interest on reserves, pushing nominal income down further.

The combined result was the largest peacetime fall in NGDP (i.e. aggregate demand/income) in the postwar period leading to, unsurprisingly, the biggest economic downturn of the postwar period. A dramatic example of Milton Friedman’s “plucking” model of economic fluctuations (as, of course, was the Great Depression) where demand shocks do the “plucking” off trend and supply shocks make the ceiling/trend uneven. (Neither “Great” conforms to the “natural rate” model of Austrian theory, despite heroic attempts to pretend both do.)

Since it was a major monetary shock, countries were affected depending on whether they had floating exchange rates (which acted as shock absorbers, to degree they were permitted to) or fixed exchange rates (which acted as shock transmitters). This was also true in the Great Depression, as all goldzone countries were on fixed exchange rates (a major reason why the Euro is like an artificial gold standard).

Wall St über Main St

Bernanke who, as an academic had analysed the credit channel transmission of the Great Depression, was all over the financial crisis, and very publicly so. Programs such as TARP looked like Main St being taxed to bailout Wall St, because they were; even if the net cost to the taxpayer later turned out to be limited (less than 1% of annual US Federal outlays). But the scale of financial crisis the asset relief was responding to was itself a product of a massive demand shock being added to the financial crisis.


The various bailouts, though initially accepted by the general public as justified by the scale of the crisis, according to the polls, quickly suffered falling public support. Rather more seriously, employment fell, unemployment surged, and stayed high, while household income expectations dropped dramatically, and failed to recover.  If one wanted evidence that the Fed ignores Main St, this would be it. Given that the Fed failed even to reach its inferred inflation target (also a bad thing to do when dealing with Zero Lower Bound issues), calling it an “ongoing dereliction of duty” is not putting it too harshly. Though the Fed has done notably better than the European Central Bank (ECB) (a low benchmark, however).

Economic stress certainly helped elect Obama, and was the biggest danger to his re-election. That the Fed decided to do more (announcing QE3 on 13 September 2012) made Obama’s re-election much easier. While the biggest mistake of his Administration was leaving positions on the Fed Board vacant for months.

There is a debate about how much Fed policy reflected Chairman Ben’s actual policy preferences and how much he was being a loyal institutional public player, given that the Fed’s performance rather dramatically contrasted with Prof. Bernanke’s former writings about (pdf) Japan’s “lost decades”. Whatever the truth of that, the Fed under Chairman Ben inflicted a massive economic shock on the US and North Atlantic economy and has spectacularly failed to undo the damage. Prolonged economic stress such as that seriously encourages the politics of frustration.

Adding in context

Which brings us back to the Tea Party. If one wants to encourage the view that things are “going wrong”, surging and entrenched unemployment, falling then flat income and dramatically rising public debt are definitely ways to do it.

The US culture wars were in full swing long before the sub-prime crisis morphed into the Global Financial Crisis or the Fed (with help from the ECB) created the Great Recession. And a black President is a more dramatic signal of change than a black Supreme Court Justice or two, a black Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, a black Secretary of State (even a black woman Secretary of State) or the various black TV or Film presidents (starting with James Earl Jones in 1972). That John Kerry is the first white male Secretary of State in 16 years is itself a fairly dramatic sign of change, but no doubt lacks popular resonance. Condoleezza Rice’s continuing popularity among Republican voters does not invalidate the existence of the social frustrations the paper identifies. Nor does that all but one of the aforementioned senior African-American officials were appointed by Republican Presidents.

So, the paper’s contention that the election of the first African-American President was a trigger for the aggrieved sense of entitlement that they identify as much of the motivation behind the Tea Party is plausible, given the evidence amassed. But surely the economic context also mattered at least as much. Central banks have, after all, a track record in fostering the politics of frustration.


  1. kvd
    Posted July 17, 2013 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

    Lorenzo while I agree with your (I think) proposition that the authors of that initial reference paid little or no attention to the ‘stress factors’ arising from economic turmoil, I have to say that I place little credence in their work on any basis, never mind economics – which I accept interests you most.

    With over two pages of the introduction dedicated to a discussion of Hofstadter’s paranoia analyses you’d think they would at least be clever enough not to quote the following:

    “Furthermore, the pseudo-conservative “believes himself to be living in a world in which he is spied upon, plotted against, betrayed, and very likely destined for ruin.”

    – given the present, ongoing, unresolved-except-by-revealing-yet-another-stuffup farces of the NSA, IRS, Justice Department -v- journalists, and lastly (in fact firstly) the nonsense response to the Benghazi assassination of a US diplomat.

    As somebody once said, back when life was simple I used to dream of paranoia. President Obama’s problem is not that he is black; it is that he is basically incompetent, and has not grown beyond his (politically) formative environment.

  2. conrad
    Posted July 17, 2013 at 6:47 pm | Permalink

    There’s an enormous literature in social psychology looking at racism, and what you find is that the longer you know someone as an individual and the more you know about them, the less you worry about their race, gender and so on. We often get the wrong impression about this, because there is a huge amount of literature really based on first perception or unknown others, and this basically gives people a strange view of what really goes on. Given this, whilst being black might lose you some votes in the first election, surely that would diminish in the second as people habituate to him being Obama, versus some anonymous black guy, and this clearly goes against what those guys are claiming.

  3. John H.
    Posted July 17, 2013 at 8:32 pm | Permalink

    There’s an enormous literature in social psychology looking at racism, and what you find is that the longer you know someone as an individual and the more you know about them, the less you worry about their race, gender and so on.

    A corally to that is something I read about homophobia. It has been suggested that the younger generation are much less homophobic because they grew up knowing homosexuals and this markedly decreased their homophobia. Familiarity breeds acceptance. When homosexuals stood up and demanded to be noticed they did all of us a very big favour.

    In relation to racism it seems the same may hold, early exposure to people of different cultures tends to breed tolerance.

  4. John Turner
    Posted July 18, 2013 at 8:01 am | Permalink

    The article was going reasonably well until the following;

    “The 1930s Depression and the Great Recession have several things in common; including being caused by central banks”.

    The GFC was caused by criminal behaviour by lenders in a market where regulation had become a race to the bottom.
    The author should read William K Black’s arguments at New Economic Perspectives. As early as October 1998, Ian Macfarlane the former governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia was pointing out the dangers of inadequate regulation. The author should also note the communique at the end of October, that year, by the western representatives at the G7 meeting. Macfarlane is quoted by John Ralston Saul as saying;

    “More and more people are asking whether the international financial system, as it has operated for most of the 1990s, is basically unstable. By now I think the majority of observers have come to the conclusion that it is…”

    “The intellectual underpinning of the free market position …The Efficient Markets Hypothesis – is very weak. In all the exchange rate tests of which I am aware, the hypothesis has been contradicted by facts.”
    “We need to devise a system for maximizing the benefits to be gained from international capital while limiting the risks.” “It is simplistic to insist on the totally free movement of capital in all countries and in all circumstances.”

    These sorts of ideas were fair representations of what most reserve bank governors, deputy ministers of finance and even finance ministers were thinking. Few of them had Macfarlane’s courage to speak out publicly. Perhaps the most active and organized questioning was taking place inside the G7, which brought together the ministers of finance of the seven largest economies, thus linking West to East, North to South.
    They were no longer true believers. But, as if in the early eighteenth century, their disavowal of the received wisdom of the one great church took place in private, off the record. At the end of the G7 meeting on 31 October,1998, an effort was made to show leadership. The Western leaders promised to put in place “international principles and codes of best practice in fiscal policy, financial and monetary policy, corporate
    governance and accounting” to “ensure that private sector institutions comply with new standards of disclosure.” The quotes are direct from Saul’s book, “The Collapsed of Globalism.”
    Even today a loan and property appraises in the USA has thanked W K Black for his incisive investigation of how regulators from as early as 2001 ignored a petition by 11,000 appraisers who drew attention to the Gresham’s Law effect of inflated valuations in the loans market. The inflated valuations effect was named by George Soros as Reflexivity.

  5. Mel
    Posted July 18, 2013 at 10:12 am | Permalink


    “In relation to racism it seems the same may hold, early exposure to people of different cultures tends to breed tolerance.”

    Didn’t work in the former Yugoslavia- multicultural bliss one day, ethnic cleansing the next.

    Lorenzo also fails to appreciate just how deep and entrenched cultural apartheid in America is. In America mixed marriages are still uncommon and often frowned upon, social mixing is strictly limited and suburbs are nearly always divided along race lines. Australians tolerate racial mixing far more so than Americans.

    And as one would expect given this situation, the spectre of racism is inseparable from white American conservatism, from William F Buckley through to Mann Coulter. Millions of intelligent American conservatives really do believe Obama is a Communist Kenyan Muslim – it isn’t just rhetoric.

  6. kvd
    Posted July 18, 2013 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

    Government standard operational procedure for dealing with a potential scandal appears to be to reveal small but enticing factoids about another totally unrelated stuff-up.

    But this must take some sort of award for ingenuity.

  7. John H.
    Posted July 18, 2013 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

    Didn’t work in the former Yugoslavia- multicultural bliss one day, ethnic cleansing the next.

    Religion? People of differing religious persuasions, especially the more literalist\fundamentalist types, rarely become tolerant of each other because their belief structures demand intolerance. They may put up the facade but when things go bad it is those evil people over there with their paganism or whatever that invited the devil into our midst.

    Australia is multicultural. We are a very peaceful society.

  8. Mel
    Posted July 18, 2013 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

    You can’t have it both ways, John H- Oz is as religiously diverse as it is racially diverse.

    The religion/race story is also much more complicated than you suggest.

    Hutu Catholics killed their Tutsi neighbours even if they saw each other in church every Sunday.

    On the other hand it is has been widely reported that Muslim Hutus saved thousands of Muslim and Christian Tutsis from the Hutu militia.

    I’m not fond of religion and I’m even less fond of Islam but the Rwandan genocide story kills stone dead the simplistic There’s Something About Islam narrative. And it kills stone dread your narrative as well.

  9. Posted July 18, 2013 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] I agree, that is not a good point of their paper, but that does not mean the rest of it has no value.
    Also, there is a difference between criticising an incumbent President (pretty well a national sport in the US) and an actual political movement.

    [email protected] The paper claiming that racism cost Obama 4%pts in both elections has a single author and is not the same paper as the five-author paper saying Obama’s election triggered the Tea Party movement.

    [email protected] The Global Financial Crisis and the Great Recession are not the same thing. The latter refers to the dramatic drop in economic activity and surging unemployment.

    The Fed’s actions made the existing financial crisis much worse, as I point out, but they did not create the financial crisis.

    It is the Great Moderation coming to an end which is the dramatic thing, not merely having yet another financial crisis, of which there had already been quite a few during the Great Moderation and a much longer history of, going back centuries.

    As to the instability of the financial system, yes and your point is? I have opined more than once on the need for effective prudential regulation.

  10. Posted July 18, 2013 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] But intermarriage in the US is becoming more common, with increasing social approval and familiarity.

    [email protected] The “caused by criminal behaviouir” thesis and “financial system inherently unstable” thesis don’t sit all that well together. I suggest you have a look at the study mentioned in this post, it is quite enlightening. (None of which argues against good prudential regulation.)

  11. Posted July 18, 2013 at 8:32 pm | Permalink

    Karl Rove being sensible about broadening the Republican base.

  12. John Turner
    Posted July 19, 2013 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    Re JT @ 3. Lorenzo wrote;

    “The Global Financial Crisis and the Great Recession are not the same thing. The latter refers to the dramatic drop in economic activity and surging unemployment. The Fed’s actions made the existing financial crisis much worse, as I point out, but they did not create the financial crisis. It is the Great Moderation coming to an end which is the dramatic thing, not merely having yet another financial crisis, of which there had already been quite a few during the Great Moderation and a much longer history of, going back centuries. As to the instability of the financial system, yes and your point is? I have opined more than once on the need for effective prudential regulation.”

    Starting with the last point; the instability of the financial system, particularly that caused by the private banking system’s overall behavior such as the promotion of liar loans and the combining of poor quality loans into CDOs with fictitious triple A ratings, led to the collapse of Bear Stearnes and Lehman Brothers. That led ultimately to the financial problems in the UK, Iceland and most of the Eurozone. A further consequence was that in mid September 2008 all Australian banks were on the point of collapse and were bailed out rather quietly.
    I find it unusual that you divorce the GFC form the Great Recession. One is, in effect, the continuation of the other with the length of the recession mainly determined by the failure of politicians to learn the lessons from Keynes and the great Depression. I don’t disagree that the US Fed has made the situation worse but that was mainly due to the absent of the required political initiatives. The ‘there is no alternative’ arguments of the neo-liberals are being shown to be fallacious.
    Australia’s avoidance of the recession from 2008, until now, was the result of a Keynesian reaction by the gang of four, Rudd, Gillard, Swan and Tanner. The Labor Government has now been misled into being more cautious than necessary by the Abbott/Hockey rants about debt. An incontrovertible thesis of Modern Money Theory is that no sovereign government can go broke on account of debt denominated in the currency it issues. From peak to peak of the business cycle the sovereign debt can grow at least as much as the economy grows in that cycle.
    Austerity means that infrastructure and other opportunities to increase wellbeing are foregone simply because the sovereign government will not take the actions necessary to utilize the unemployed people and resources. The collapse of bridges in the USA illustrates this point. QE is a foolish alternative to sensible projects that benefit the communities. The US Fed has bailed out the causes of the GFC rather than the victims of the criminal behavior. Bill Black of the Uni of Missouri, Kansas City, and Warren Mosler et al, can provide some clear insights into this whole situation.
    Bernacke invented the term, Great Moderation, possibly as a cover for the mistakes of his forerunner Alan Greenspan who was mainly responsible for permitting the race to the bottom in financial regulation. In assessing the situation as it developed Greenspan was a long way behind Ian Macfarlane, in fact almost as far behind as John Howard.

  13. Mel
    Posted July 19, 2013 at 12:15 pm | Permalink


    According to the survey you mention, less than one in ten married whites is in a mixed race marriage but you are correct about the rate increasing. Nonetheless the rate of mixing is still much less than in many other countries including Oz.

    Some conservative religious schools in the US still ban interracial dating and advertisements that feature mixed race couples can still generate controversy.

  14. Jonathan D
    Posted July 19, 2013 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

    I don’t think the paper arguing that race depressed his vote suggests that adding 4% to the vote gives anyything meaningfully comparable with other elections. The 4% is meant to be how much more he would have recieved if the whole of the US had similar attitudes to the ‘most racially tolerant areas’, not how much more he would have received if, say, he were white, or race were not an issue. The paper does argue that his race had much greater negative effect than positive, but it doesn’t argue that he gained no votes, and doesn’t seem to consider what the net effect might have been.

    Conrad, I’ve know doubt that familiarity is a great help in rendering irrelevant the braoder categories they might fit in, but my experience is that the relationship between voters and politicians is generally quite a special one, certainly nothing like knowing someone individually.

  15. Posted July 19, 2013 at 5:52 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] Bernanke did not invent the term “Great Moderation”, he publicised a term used a couple of years earlier in an academic paper which was building on previous academic work. It is an identifiable phenomenon, not some gimmick.

    Australia avoided the Great Recession mainly because the RBA kept income expectations anchored. Some of the fiscal actions may have helped there, but it was crucially monetary policy that made the difference.

    Your claim that:

    An incontrovertible thesis of Modern Money Theory is that no sovereign government can go broke on account of debt denominated in the currency it issues.

    would be one of the reasons I find MMT mostly wrongheaded. The notion that there is infinite demand for any asset is just silly.

    The Great Recession was a major drop in economic activity across industries across countries. The GFC does not explain that.

    As for learning the lessons from Keynes and the Great Depression, I find the monetary explanation far more compelling.

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