Dumping on Robert Barro

by on January 23, 2009 at 7:47 am in Economics | Permalink

Matt Yglesias has a very good post on Robert Barro's latest.  Brad DeLong seems to agree with Matt.  Paul Krugman uses the word "boneheaded" to describe the Barro piece.

This exchange is a good micro-cosm of how the stimulus debate has proceeded.  A highly respected anti-stimulus economist puts up some anti-stimulus evidence in a highly imperfect test (in Barro's defense, he did cover more than just WWII).  The anti-stimulus economist is attacked by pro-stimulus economists.  But the pro-stimulus proponents are focused on attack.  They are not putting up comparable empirical evidence of their own for the efficacy of fiscal policy and there is a reason for that, namely that the evidence isn't really there.

I fully admit that I don't trust the oft-cited evidence that tax cuts are 4x better stimulus than government spending boosts; I think the result is a mirage from underspecified models.  Overall we simply don't know how well the proposed stimulus will work — if at all (is aggregate demand always the relevant war?).  It's a kind of Hail Mary pass, an enduring belief in aggregate demand macroeconomics at the theoretical level, even in light of broken banks, sectoral shifts, and nasty, failing expectations, all mixed in with hard to spend well, slow to come on line, monies.  Yes it could work but our agnosticism should be strong rather than just perfunctory. 

Writing polemics against market-oriented economists, no matter what the failings of such economists (and I am one of them, and I have failings), doesn't get us out of that box.

I'll say it again to the pro-stimulus forces: a stimulus is going to happen, so I'd love to be cheered up by your evidence.  Put it on the table.

I also am confused by Krugman's view of the relevance of WWII.  On his blog, at the end of a discussion of how the historical example of WWII doesn't much apply, he writes:

I can’t quite imagine the mindset that leads someone to forget all
this, and think that you can use World War II to estimate the
multiplier that might prevail in an underemployed, rationing-free

And he is upset at Barro for thinking that the WWII experience does apply.  Fair enough, but a) the War didn't start at full employment, and b) is it possible that Barro received this impression from reading Krugman himself?  In Rolling Stone last week Krugman wrote:

took the giant public works project known as World War II – a
project that finally silenced the penny pinchers – to bring
the Depression to an end.

The lesson from FDR's limited success on the employment front,
then, is that you have to be really bold in your job-creation
plans. Basically, businesses and consumers are cutting way back on
spending, leaving the economy with a huge shortfall in demand,
which will lead to a huge fall in employment – unless you
stop it. To stop it, however, you have to spend enough to fill the
hole left by the private sector's retrenchment.

If you read both Krugman passages closely, there is not actually a literal contradiction.  But still, a fundamental decision has to be made on whether to run away from the WWII evidence or not.  I say the WWII evidence does not apply and so I am closer to Krugman as he writes on his blog.

Either way you cut it, there aren't any boneheads in the room.

1 Andrew January 23, 2009 at 8:01 am

Bravo Tyler, Bravo! A voice of moderation and impartiality in this debate often filled with raging egos and tiresome ad hominem attacks. Bravo!

2 Daniel Klein January 23, 2009 at 8:02 am

Nice post.

It remains comical how little those dangerous words “Robert Higgs” figures into the discussion.

3 bastiat January 23, 2009 at 8:13 am

In this case it would seem the burden of proof rests with the proponents of fiscal stimulus. After all, they are proposing spending our money, which they seem to forget frequently. The shrill tone they take speaks volumes about their confidence in their argument.

4 Craig Bardo January 23, 2009 at 8:23 am

Yes, what about Higgs? Ohanian?

5 Andrew January 23, 2009 at 8:37 am

“I’ll say it again to the pro-stimulus forces: a stimulus is going to happen, so I’d love to be cheered up by your evidence. Put it on the table.”

Tyler, I knew you really didn’t mean what you said in an earlier post that the burden of proof was on them. We are reduced to begging they at least pretend to respect us in the morning.

6 .. January 23, 2009 at 8:46 am

so I am closer to Krugman as he writes on his blog.

He actually didn’t mention you on his blog. You might wish he had, but i didn’t read it.

7 Josh January 23, 2009 at 9:10 am

.. @ 8:46 —

Tyler means he is closer to the position Krugman takes on his blog.

8 JR January 23, 2009 at 9:32 am

Noel Johnson:
Thanks for the pointer to the NBER paper, you did everyone a service by linking it under this blog post.

The critique of it’s relevance, however, is that the spending component of the New Deal it investigates looks at retail sales for counties and their contiguous neighbors. The emphasis then is on local economic activity, and just one side of it (retail spending). The authors of the paper note that this was at the expense of other non-contiguous counties.

Since the deficit spending argument is on stimulating overall economic activity to get the country out of a recession, this paper would not be great support for that claim because it is looking at smaller sub units and only one aspect of the economy, and finds even that spending to be something of a zero-sum game.

9 rsquared January 23, 2009 at 9:37 am

Tyler, I find the Yglesias post to be a thoughtful and moderate repsonse to the Barro piece, a position your description seems to imply. But your next sentence implies it was somehow an attack. Delong’s posts were fairly reasonable as well, if pepppered with a bit more pith. No question Krugman was on the attack, but Nobel or not, he has to be viewed through the filter of selling newspapers. His relevance is partly defined (sadly) by offering up a little red meat. But I think it is a stretch to call the Yglesias and Delong mentions here attacks. We have seen DeLong attack, and it can actually be quite entertaining (Don Luskin anyone?), but this was not an attack.

10 JSIS January 23, 2009 at 9:55 am

This is one of Tylers cryptic posts where the real meaning is

Boneheaded is worse than cry baby.

I don’t see any disagreement between his and pro-stimuls economists. Krugman is skeptical that all 850b of it would be spent on right things. Mark Thoma, said we are in unique situation historical precedents don’t apply. Admits he didn’t have foolproof evidence. TC admits he doesn’t have a better plan.

11 assman January 23, 2009 at 10:13 am

“he knows (or should know) that the WW2 argument would never survive in an academic setting but offers it anyway because he knows that the topic will not be decided in academia but in the court of public opinion.”

Huh? Did you read what Tyler Cohen wrote above? The main evidence that Keynesian’s have always used to defend stimulus is WWII. And Paul Krugman did exactly that when he wrote:

“It took the giant public works project known as World War II — a project that finally silenced the penny pinchers — to bring the Depression to an end.”

All Barro did was take Krugman at face value and actually analyze WW2. If Barro is wrong then Krugman is wrong for bringing this up in the first place. As are all Keynesians. So ogmb please explain how you square the attacks on Barro with Krugman’s WWII quote.

12 Grant January 23, 2009 at 10:26 am

This really shouldn’t be surprising to anyone. Academia seems to largely be a status game, and status (in the form of politics and popular opinion) is pro-stimulus. Thus pro-stimulus economists have no reason to respect the evidence or opinions of anti-stimulus economists, who are mostly beneath them. The burden of proof seems to be determined more by status than logic.

JSIS, if one can show the currently proposed plan will do more harm than good, one does not need a “better plan” to argue against it. Doing nothing is always an option. However, I think there are probably many better plans, such as Arnold Kling’s and Bryan Caplan’s proposed payroll tax cuts. Keep in mind the objective is to invest in the greatest returns at the margin.

13 josh January 23, 2009 at 10:36 am

As a “layman” I have to ask. What evidence do we have that macroeconomics has even been heading in the right direction over the past 100 years, let alone that it can be used to make useful predictions.

More generally, how much credence should we give to any scientists that come to the conclusion that they should more or less rule the world?

14 Noel Johnson January 23, 2009 at 10:46 am


Sorry, I misread your post. You are saying that the Fishback et. al. piece doesn’t take into account substitution of economic activity in “non-contiguous” counties. Okay. Good enough. But, by the same token, there is no evidence in the paper that non-contiguous counties suffered because of the public works spending. In fact, I find it hard to believe that if the contiguous counties weren’t affected, that the non-contiguous ones would (aside from, say, a some sort of federal budget constraint argument, but that’s not what we’re talking about, right?).

15 B.H. January 23, 2009 at 10:55 am

I was wondering whether policy experiments in standard macro simulation models (maintained by, among others, Ray Fair at Yale, UCLA forecasting project, Global Insight, Economy.com, and Macroeconomic Advisers) constitutes evidence.

Would sophisticated macro models with rational expectations, such as McKibben-Sachs or Taylor, give reliable evidence?

Would vector autoregression analysis constitute evidence?

Is a list of event studies, case studies, the same as evidence?

Before you demand evidence, tell me what is admissable.

16 Richard A. January 23, 2009 at 11:02 am

How does fiscal stimulus show up in the monetary equation?
M x V = GDP

dGDP = GEM x dG where GEM is the government expenditure multiplier
M x Vfs = GDP + (GEM x dG)

So fiscal stimulus increases the velocity of money from V to Vfs

With a little bit of algebra V becomes,
V[1 + GEM x (dG/GDP)]

The monetary equation becomes,
M x V[1 + GEM x (dG/GDP)] = GDP

But the FED nowadays controls the growth of GDP so any shift in V will cause the FED to respond to offset that shift, overriding any fiscal stimulus.

17 Troy January 23, 2009 at 11:23 am

Tyler, I have to take issue with the following sentence from your post:

“A highly respected anti-stimulus economist puts up some anti-stimulus evidence in a highly imperfect test (in Barro’s defense, he did cover more than just WWII).”

DID he cover more than WWII? Here’s the relevant portion from Barro’s piece:

“We can consider similarly three other U.S. wartime experiences — World War I, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War — although the magnitudes of the added defense expenditures were much smaller in comparison to GDP. Combining the evidence with that of World War II (which gets a lot of the weight because the added government spending is so large in that case) yields an overall estimate of the multiplier of 0.8 — the same value as before.”

How much is “a lot of the weight”? If “a lot” is large enough, it renders the additional evidence from the other three wars essentially irrelevant. Barro seems to be admitting as much in the first part of the paragraph. And yet, he still uses that dramatic dependent clause at the end of his paragraph — “the same value as before” — as though it were a revelation.

Cleverly written — I suspect he’s being intentionally misleading, that the non-WWII evidence is inconclusive either way, and that he’s using it here to make his argument sound more broadly applicable and therefore stronger.

If I’m right, it underscores your main point in this post: the evidence for fiscal stimulus either working or not working is, generally speaking, inconclusive. Anyone who tells you different is selling something.

18 Nick Rowe January 23, 2009 at 12:10 pm

Richard A. @ 11.02: The Fed will respond to the rise in V by increasing M (to keep interest rates the same). (Previously, the Fed would indeed have responded to the rise in V by reducing M, to keep P X Y the same, but now the Fed wants to increase P X Y, so will respond differently to how it responded in the past.)

19 Erik January 23, 2009 at 12:23 pm

Why does our economy have to be SO based on consumption of new TVs, new cars, new houses? Why can’t it be based more off investment, with a national household savings rate that is higher and consumption lower? Why can’t we buy more free time from work, instead of having to continuously buy goods?

It seems like we could re-tool our economy to something more interested in the quality of daily life and business investment, than one which focuses on bigger-better-more useless toys.

20 josh January 23, 2009 at 1:06 pm

Friedrich List,

Saying there is no macroeconomics, only economics strikes me as similar to saying there is no climatology, only chemistry or physics. Don’t the models involve aggregates and brand new assumptions when you start talking about the “macroeconomy” or am I wrong and we have a working economic theory of everything?

21 allen January 23, 2009 at 1:58 pm

Isn’t (part of) Krugman’s critique terribly flawed? He’d like it to be an excuse for why the multiplier is less than 1, but the fact that rationing had to be implemented is proof that it is less than 1. I’m reminded of children who stop trying when they are losing badly in a game, and then claim the reason they lost was they didn’t try.

22 david January 23, 2009 at 4:10 pm

This splitting of the comment pages is incredibly annoying.

23 Consumatopia January 23, 2009 at 5:15 pm

Fair enough, but a) the War didn’t start at full employment,

Does that mean the War serves as evidence that government spending reduces unemployment, even if it doesn’t increase GDP?

24 Consumatopia January 23, 2009 at 5:19 pm

He’d like it to be an excuse for why the multiplier is less than 1, but the fact that rationing had to be implemented is proof that it is less than 1.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I thought the multiplier was supposed to be a multiplier of money not of goods produced. So, without rationing, there would have been crazy inflation and a very high multiplier.

25 Consumatopia January 23, 2009 at 7:13 pm

He’d like it to be an excuse for why the multiplier is less than 1, but the fact that rationing had to be implemented is proof that it is less than 1.

In fact, I think this is exactly wrong–if you’re arguing that military spending had a contracting effect on GDP, then you’re basically arguing that rationing wasn’t even necessary.

And I don’t know bupkis about WW2 economics, so maybe it wasn’t. Seems like something one could determine by looking the volume and prices of goods on the black market–a large black market would suggest that the multiplier-without-rationing would be higher.

26 The Sheep Nazi January 23, 2009 at 7:29 pm

Oh, and the argument about rationing boils down to this, as I understand it. Keynesian economics is, supposedly, a remedy that you apply when your problem is not enough demand. Rationing is a remedy you apply when your problem is not enough supply. If your policy is to apply both at the same time, then you’ve got a mighty confused policy on your hands, I should think. Which I think we probably did, back then, and maybe nowadays as well.

27 Allen January 23, 2009 at 8:40 pm

from the personal consumption stand point, I’m not sure contractionary is wholly different from “crowding out” personal spending just more severe.

If the multiplier was greater than 1, say 1.5, than a $100M increase in spending, increases GDP 150M. 100M of which was consumed by the govt, but that still leaves 50M EXTRA for consumers. Why would rationing be needed when there is more now even more goods for consumers? Obviously, it wouldn’t be.

28 Falstaff January 23, 2009 at 9:51 pm

Noel –

Yes I believe you skipped one of Tyler’s hurdles for spending stimulus: time. Assuming Fishback, Horrace, Kantor are correct about the new deal stimulus from infrastructure spending, its all moot if the projects can not execute in the required time frame. The Brooks & WP articles linked above cite the CBO estimating only ~15% of the budgeted money spent by Oct 2010: 13% of the highway money, 16% of the school money. A traditional cost benefit analysis might justify this or that project over the longer term for an admittedly ailing infrastructure, but FH&K spending can little reach us in the next two years – the predicted period of downturn by CBO. Two to five years out as the spending projects hit their stride we expect no more aggregate demand shortfall; upon returning to high demand conditions Barrow’s comparison to the WWII high demand economy probably hold, and thus does his use of a low or zero multiplier. Without some miraculous spending acceleration, the job claims of 2-3 million via the current fiscal plan are invalid.


29 Greg Ransom January 23, 2009 at 11:13 pm

This is the Keynes model. Top economists showed in the _30s_ than many of Keynes’ assumption didn’t make empirical sense, and didn’t stand up to the “”data” — read some Laidler for some examples.

Always, the answer of Keynes and the Keynesian was attack, insult, belittling, satire — never an empirical response. Likewise, with theoretical destructions of Keynesian economics, the answer was empty attack, mischaracterization, insults, belittling, etc. — never addressing the question at issue.

I’d recommend Laider’s _Fabricating the Keynesian Revolution_ for lots of examples, but actually just a brushing of the surface.

Krugman and DeLong are just following in the long tradition of the Keynesian pack.

Tyler wrote:

“The anti-stimulus economist is attacked by pro-stimulus economists. But the pro-stimulus proponents are focused on attack. They are not putting up comparable empirical evidence of their own for the efficacy of fiscal policy and there is a reason for that, namely that the evidence isn’t really there.”

30 Consumatopia January 23, 2009 at 11:23 pm

Oh, and the argument about rationing boils down to this, as I understand it. Keynesian economics is, supposedly, a remedy that you apply when your problem is not enough demand. Rationing is a remedy you apply when your problem is not enough supply. If your policy is to apply both at the same time, then you’ve got a mighty confused policy on your hands, I should think. Which I think we probably did, back then, and maybe nowadays as well.

Except we weren’t spending all that money to raise demand, we were spending all that money to fight a war. Nonetheless, the apparent fact that we had to resort to rationing would seem to indicate that this war spending did, in fact, raise demand.

31 BlogReader January 23, 2009 at 11:30 pm

Here’s a gem from a link Krugman to a previous article:

Needless to say, everyone I’ve mentioned [ that’s anti-stimulus ] is politically conservative. That’s their right: economists are citizens too. But it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that all of them have decided on political grounds that they don’t want a spending-based fiscal stimulus — and that these political considerations have led them to drop their usual quality-control standards when it comes to economic analysis.

Ah, only TRUE economists are pro-stimulus laddie! I’m not sure why Paul feels the need to demonize people that disagree with him. Maybe he has some good ideas in his blog posts but everytime I read them I’m struck by how bitter and mean spirited he is. If he just stuck to his story I would find them much more enjoyable.

32 JIm Luckett January 24, 2009 at 1:03 am

Barro says the multiplier is 0.8 so stimulus spending is not a free lunch. Okay, if he’s right, then it’s a $10 lunch for $2. That’s still pretty darn good. It means, not only does stimulus spending work to creat jobs and boost output, but also to pass a cost/benefit analysis the components of the package only have to show 21 cents of benefit per dollar spent. If this is the worst that conservative economists have to throw at the idea, we’ve come a long way toward a Keynsian consensus!

To the comment above that “the war didn’t start at full employment” and that Krugman himself credited the war for ending the Great Depression, there’s no contradiction here. The problem is, the war took us well past full employment, to a world in which there were widespread shortages and non-price rationing. If we could isolate just the part of WWII that carried us from high unemployment to low unemployment and estimate the multiplier just on that portion of it, that multiplier estimate would be valid for application to the current situation. It may well be the multiplier was 1.5 for that portion of WWII. The remainder of the WWII govt. spending carried us from low unemployment to no unemployment and a vast expansion of the labor force to pull in housewives and others not previously seeking paid work, along with non-price rationing and shortages. The multiplier for that hyper-stimulus portion of WWII spending is probably close to 0 and is not relevant to the present time because there is no proposal on the table that would carry us into that territory. What Barro gives us is an average of the 2, and that’s why he comes up with 0.8.

Elsewhere in his WSJ piece Barro says he attempted to estimate the multiplier using peacetime spending and came up with a number not significantly different from zero. This is weasle-wording. What was the number, Dr. Barro? In common speech, “not significantly different from zero” means a very small number. But in econometrics, the concept of statistical insignificance just means you can’t reject the hypothesis based on your estimate that the true number is zero. You also can’t accept that hypothesis, however. In fact, your estimate might be a large number — like 1.0 or 1.5, in the current context. But if the variance of your estimate is also large, then you can’t reject the null hypothesis and so it’s correct to say to those with the necessary technical training that the number was not significant’y different from zero. However, your best linear unbiased estimate is still the large number, according to the Gauss Markov theorem, not zero. So, we don’t know whether Barro’s estimate was a large number with a large variance attached to his estimate, allowing him to make the technically true statement that it was not significantly different from zero using the econometric meaning of these words, or whether it was actually a small number. If it was the former, there can be lots of reasons why he had high variance in his estimator which have nothing to do with proving stimulus doesn’t work.

His piece is also quite biased in saying Keynsians start from the implicit assumption that the government does a better job putting to work idle resources than the private free market. They do nothing of the kind! They start from the empirical observation that market economies go through occasional periods where the private market simple WILL NOT fully employ the available resources, and these periods can be quite long. Then through theoretical and empirical argument and analysis they reach the conclusion that govt. spending can cause the idle resources to be put back to work, that this primes the pump for the private free market and when income starts flowing again, through rounds of re-spending, private consumption and investment crowds in and public spending can be tapered off. For most things, the private free market does a better job of employing resources to meet human wants and needs, Keynsians agree. But sometimes, as Keynes says, the free market gets magneto trouble. The motor stalls. In those times, it’s not a question of which (the govt. or the private market) will employ better, it’s a matter of which will employ the idle resources at all.

33 PattyDaddy January 24, 2009 at 10:14 am

What was the national debt after WWII compared to other nations? Didd’nt others owe the USA? If so then, given our status as a debtor nation, how does the WWII analogue apply?

34 TallDave January 24, 2009 at 4:07 pm

Barro says the multiplier is 0.8 so stimulus spending is not a free lunch. Okay, if he’s right, then it’s a $10 lunch for $2.

No, that would mean we’re paying $10 for an $8 lunch. It lowers GDP. Taxes are not free money, something the left always seems confused by.

The other way to put this is that the war lowered components of GDP aside from military purchases. The main declines were in private investment, nonmilitary parts of government purchases, and net exports — personal consumer expenditure changed little. Wartime production siphoned off resources from other economic uses — there was a dampener, rather than a multiplier.

The war was an external benefit. Few would argue we did not need to spend that money on the war, but it wasn’t good for the real economy, the one outside the war. Also:

There are reasons to believe that the war-based multiplier of 0.8 substantially overstates the multiplier that applies to peacetime government purchases. In any event, when I attempted to estimate directly the multiplier associated with peacetime government purchases, I got a number insignificantly different from zero.

That sounds about right.

People should consider the illogic here:

To think about what this means, first assume that the multiplier was 1.0. In this case, an increase by one unit in government purchases and, thereby, in the aggregate demand for goods would lead to an increase by one unit in real gross domestic product (GDP). Thus, the added public goods are essentially free to society. If the government buys another airplane or bridge, the economy’s total output expands by enough to create the airplane or bridge without requiring a cut in anyone’s consumption or investment.

As he says: Magic!

If the multiplier is greater than 1.0, as is apparently assumed by Team Obama, the process is even more wonderful. In this case, real GDP rises by more than the increase in government purchases. Thus, in addition to the free airplane or bridge, we also have more goods and services left over to raise private consumption or investment. In this scenario, the added government spending is a good idea even if the bridge goes to nowhere, or if public employees are just filling useless holes. Of course, if this mechanism is genuine, one might ask why the government should stop with only $1 trillion of added purchases.

Indeed. Why not ten trillion? Why not the whole econ

In North Korea, food is so scarce there are riots over rotting fish heads. Government is very, very bad at running an economy.

35 BlogReader January 25, 2009 at 11:21 am

TallDave: In North Korea, food is so scarce there are riots over rotting fish heads. Government is very, very bad at running an economy.

Yeah but our team knows how to run an economy. That’s the reason given since the beginning of time.

36 doesn't matter January 26, 2009 at 3:33 am

This is something that drives me nuts about that group of economic bloggers- they very rarely relay both sides of a story. This is especially unforgivable with regards to Krugman- a Nobel prize gives an economist a level of credibility which should be used with care and discretion, not as a means to contribute to partisan rancor.

Perhaps one of the best examples of this is Krugman’s spending the last 8 years talking about the travesty that rising inequality has been in this country. Once the economic crisis (which he pretends to have been prescient on) hit, he then added to his argument something to the idea of “and the hikes in inequality are not even justified by the hikes in GDP, which have proven themselves artificial”. However, anyone with a brain looks at this and says, “If the GDP gains were artificial, and concentrated in the upper brackets of earners, then the inequality was also artificial” but Krugman does not admit to this.

Krugman is right to bemoan inequality and challenge Bush on GDP increases, but, he should have the intellectual integrity to not make blatantly self-contradictory arguments.

And giving him his Nobel Prize (which I am not argue that he didn’t deserve, his contributions to trade theory are stellar) at this time and by himself (rather than later and, say with Helpman or Dixit) was a clear endorsement of Krugman’s commentary. That is a sad, sad turn for academic economic thought- partisan cheerleading encouraged over subjectivity and self-critiques.

37 Troy January 27, 2009 at 11:19 am

@ TallDave…

If the argument is rather that the government can provide non-external goods efficiently, well, we would have lost the Cold War if that argument had merit.

I think the argument is that there’s a balance between public and private investment that yields optimal economic results. Obviously, our opponents in the Cold War got that balance wrong. Furthermore, they didn’t have a political system that could pragmatically rebalance their equation as conditions warranted, and subsequently that political system died a richly deserved death.

As he says: Magic!…Why not ten trillion? Why not the whole econ?

I’m no economist, but I think the argument here would be that this only works because of our specific conditions today, namely: 1) an economy that’s well below full employment, meaning that people who could be contributing and want to be contributing are idle right now, so govt spending can use them without crowding out any use of those resources by the private sector, and 2) standard monetary policy, increasing the money supply to spur investment and therefore use these idle resources, doesn’t work right now because interest rates can’t go below zero.

So, yes, under the conditions we have today, government spending is kind of free and magic. Plus it’s the only option we have other than settling in for a new, lower equilibrium point. Under other conditions, under *normal* conditions, this kind of free spending would be disastrous.

Nobody’s arguing that we should become North Korea.

38 college essay March 12, 2010 at 3:16 am

Any point of view about the stimulus plan is worth reading about. I am glad there is such an intellectual exchange of different ideas here

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