Who is the most influential public intellectual of the last twenty-five years?

by on June 27, 2013 at 5:07 pm in Law, Weblogs | Permalink

A while ago I asked a related question.  But my answer blew it on one major possibility.  Doesn’t Andrew Sullivan have a reasonably strong claim to that title, especially after the recent Supreme Court decisions on gay marriage?  Sullivan was the dominant intellectual influence on this issue, from the late 1980s on, and that is from a time where other major civil liberties figures didn’t give gay marriage much of a second thought, one way or the other, or they wished to run away from the issue.  Here is his classic 1989 New Republic essay.  Here is a current map of where gay marriage is legal and very likely there is more to come.

Sullivan was also a very early blogger, and an inspiration for many in that regard (myself included), and the blogging innovation seems like it is going to stick.  That’s two big wins right there, and how many other people can even come up with one?

Many of you will complain about his “war blogging,” his connection to Obama, and perhaps other matters, but no matter what you think on these issues it still seems to me he holds the lead.

Pre-Sullivan, I would give the honors to Milton Friedman.

Jason Briggeman June 27, 2013 at 5:10 pm

Jimbo Wales.

Abe Froman June 27, 2013 at 5:40 pm

Could be – but it’s a little like a vote for Hayek.

Maybe it looks like this:
Last 25 years: Wales (living embodiment of Use of Knowledge in Society)
Previous 25 years: Friedman (drawing heavily upon the Use of Knowledge in Society)
Another 25 years back: Hayek (author of Use of Knowledge in Society)

Sounds about right…

Jason Briggeman June 27, 2013 at 5:50 pm

Forgetting the high-concept stuff, you still might make a case for Wales owing to his position as the most powerful editor of Wikipedia’s content.

Greg Ransom June 28, 2013 at 7:05 am


Steve Pinker — a distant 2nd.

Ron Byrnes June 27, 2013 at 5:14 pm

In another 10-15 years it might be Krugman.

TMC June 27, 2013 at 7:13 pm

He’s been out of the intellectual business for almost 15 years. Better make it quick.

Panskeptic June 27, 2013 at 11:06 pm

It’s Krugman already. Despite non-stop ridicule from those who think the Iraq War was just, he has produced a non-stop flow of rational, evidence-based commentary, with a better track record of economic predication than any other.

Even those who hate Krugman are forced to react to him. None have actually won an argument against him. No one’s laid a glove on him yet.

Ask Niall Ferguson, who got boo’ed off the stage when confronting him.

So Much For Subtlety June 27, 2013 at 11:25 pm

Hello Paul. How’s it going?

Ffhhvfhdhf June 28, 2013 at 1:00 am

LOL. Good stuff.

Doug June 28, 2013 at 2:19 am

Krugman publicly humiliated himself with his majorly off the mark predictions on Estonia.

Peter Schaeffer June 28, 2013 at 12:49 pm


Krugman has said all sorts of dumb things. My favorite is

“I predict that in the years ahead Enron, not Sept. 11, will come to be seen as the greater turning point in U.S. society.”

However, the fact that this inane quote is still well known, demonstrates his influence.

Andrew' June 28, 2013 at 11:57 am


All Krugman ever does is whine that he doesn’t have enough influence.

Zephyrus June 28, 2013 at 1:27 pm

And yet somehow there’s no other writer who makes his opponents veer into apoplexy as much as Krugman…

JWatts June 28, 2013 at 9:03 pm

Well if that’s your standard for public influence then clearly Rush Limbaugh wins by a mile.

Patrick L June 27, 2013 at 5:17 pm

I’m offering this seriously, why does there have to be a /most/ influential or /best/ public intellectual? Obviously there has to be one, and I understand the point of the question is to force us to examine why we think something is good public intellectualism and someone is bad, but isn’t it possible that most of the modern intellectualism we’re exposed to isn’t done by any one thinker but is a collaborative effort of thousands, maybe millions of thinkers working in small ways to push small differences?

Jason Briggeman June 27, 2013 at 5:21 pm

*counting this as a second vote for Wales

Aidan June 27, 2013 at 5:18 pm

Interesting pick. I think it’s possible you’re overstating the influence he’s had on changing opinions on gay marriage, and I think he gets docked points because he doesn’t really have many (any?) true intellectual followers. I think everyone thinks Sullivan’s way out there on at least something.

He might not be widely known, but I’d say Jacob Hacker has been a pretty influential public intellectual for his work on health care and income inequality.

adam.smith June 27, 2013 at 6:26 pm

I think Hacker is a great counter-intuitive pick. Yes, he’s not super famous, but he was hugely influential in making health insurance the key issue in the 2008 Democratic primary and in thinking through the politics of getting health care passed, which also contributed a lot to the general form it ended up taking (he was, I believe, the key author of Edward’s health care plan that Obama and Hillary basically ended up using in their campaigns – ironically, Obama initially without the individual mandate…).
I’m really happy about gay marriage taking hold, but in terms of its impact at least in the US, I think it dwarves compared to Obamacare (regardless of whether you think it’s a good or bad thing).

I’d also put up Bannerje/Duflo who have been tremendously influential in changing the standards by which development programs are evaluated. Twenty years ago RCT didn’t exist in even in development economics. Today, every serious IGO/NGO wants to do them.

I wonder how influential Sullivan was internationally. Did the US gay marriage debate play a role in the early adopter countries – Netherlands, Belgium, Spain? I’m pretty sure no one there ever heard of Sullivan, but the key question is whether the debate started in the US. Denmark, e.g., has had civil unions since 1989.

adam.smith June 27, 2013 at 6:37 pm

oh, just see that Tyler has Hacker and Duflo on the “could be” list in the old post. I think it’s now pretty clear that Sachs shouldn’t be on the list.

Wonks Anonymous June 28, 2013 at 12:43 pm

For better or worse, Sachs really has had a lot of influence.

Jeff June 27, 2013 at 7:11 pm

I’m not sure anyone who engages in the amount of Trig Trutherism that Sullivan does can be called an “intellectual.”

adam.smith June 27, 2013 at 7:38 pm

many intellectuals have/had some crazy believes. Isaac Newton believed in the Philsopher’s Stone, Serge Lang didn’t believe in the HIV/AIDS link, Chomsky (initially) believed the Khmer Rouge were a bunch of nice revolutionaries etc. etc.
I think it’d be very hard to come up with a definition of intellectual that doesn’t include Sullivan.

So Much For Subtlety June 27, 2013 at 11:24 pm

Chomsky was publishing articles well into the 1980s denying that the Khmer Rouge killed anyone. He did not ever back away from those claims either as far as I know. It is not that he initially believed anything. It was that he had a deep psychological need to believe the Khmer Rouge were nice people.

But Chomsky is fairly serious as thinkers go. Wrong, of course, even evil. But Sullivan? He seems a little light weight to me.

Zephyrus June 28, 2013 at 1:33 pm

Oh, please. Cite that he claimed well into the 1980s that the Khmer Rouge killed anyone?

Heaps of bullshit.

So Much For Subtlety June 28, 2013 at 6:33 pm

Well hardly anyone. I think the comparison was with France after Liberation.

And I did not say he claimed anything. Chomsky is paranoid about saying anything that might come back to bite him. I said he published such claims. As he did – he was running an academic journal that he set up. And they published such articles.

JWatts June 27, 2013 at 5:20 pm

I think the case for Andrew Sullivan is pretty weak. After all he didn’t even occur to you as a likely candidate, until the recent Supreme Court decision; and I suspect if you were to ask the question 5 years from now, no one would consider him as a viable candidate. He seems more of a topical candidate do to recent events.

Mark Thorson June 27, 2013 at 6:39 pm

In other words, temporal regionalism.

JWatts June 28, 2013 at 12:16 pm

Also, just regionalism. How influential is Andrew Sullivan outside of the US?

Paul Goldstone July 3, 2013 at 5:35 pm

Andrew Sullivan is probably more influential in the English-speakig world outside the US than in the US. Have a read of David Cameron’s speeches on why he supports gay marriage – almost word for word Andrew Sullivan. The recent debate passing a gay marriage act in New Zealand consisted of people basically parroting Andrew Sullivan.

Edward Lambert June 27, 2013 at 5:21 pm

I would say Milton Friedman, but I would not give him any honors. He said corporations did not have any social responsibility, that minimum wage was wrong, and that unions were bad. And now we have the sorry consequences.

“there is one and only one social responsibility of business–to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud.” – Milton Friedman

Ok, profits are huge, but at the cost of an impoverished society.

Anon. June 27, 2013 at 5:27 pm

What a train wreck of a comment. I mean…wow.

Pshrnk June 27, 2013 at 6:34 pm

Agree with Anon. I nominated Gordon Gecko because he misintrepreted, as did many others, Friedman’s message that “profit is good” as “greed is good.” Profoundly different ideas.

mulp June 27, 2013 at 8:31 pm

Where is the deception or fraud in what the bankers did post the monster omnibus bill passed without anyone knowing what was in it after backroom deals inserted a bunch of stalled bills into a must pass budget bill just as Congress left for the holidays in 2000? That bill completely deregulated derivatives in any form and converted insurance into unsecured derivatives if you call them “swaps”. That bill was used to prevent States from regulating mortgage origination when the Bush administration took that power from the States.

The reasons for the deregulation was that a free market without government interference and regulation would lead to greater security of the banking system because capitalists would never make bad investments. Greenspan argued that deregulation and a handoff approach by government eliminates fraud.

Thus, by Greenspan’s assessment as the top official of the US financial system was “fraud was no longer possible.” The Fed at that point had the sole authority to regulate all mortgages.

Clearly everything the private sector did, from AIG to all the non-Fed investment banks to the mortgage originators, was not fraud, and purely done in the interests of shareholder and maximizing profits.

I would also note that Milton Friedman was never condemning of the policies of those Reagan conservatives et al who invoked his name in support of tax cuts while running record deficits while claiming to be fiscal conservatives, and then making many more victim crimes and making the penalties for victimless crimes lifetimes of punishment. How could Friedman support Reagan and other conservative Republicans who made the US the nation of prisons? Prisons now often privatized for profit so the business model is promoting more criminal convictions and longer prison time to maximize profits for shareholder value.

Ron Paul held his tongue for years, but unlike Friedman he was running for political office, but he was called “dangerous” before he was condemned as “dangerous” for saying what Friedman wrote back in the 60s and repeated quietly so as to avoid alienating the political class. I guess that gives weight to Andrew Sullivan, and Ron Paul, as better public intellectuals than Milton Friedman.

By the way, I’m a long time fan of Milton Friedman’s work prior to about the 80s when he seems to have sold his soul to support conservative Republicans.

So Much For Subtlety June 28, 2013 at 1:51 am

I know that replying to someone with this level of animus is a waste of time – closed minds are rarely rewarding to deal with – but there is little evidence for what is claimed here about Friedman and the Republicans. Friedman was an early supporter of Gay Marriage for instance. He was also an early and loud critic of the War on Drugs. On both of those issues Friedman clashed with mainstream Republicans.

So mulp is, as usual, wrong on multiple levels. Friedman did not support drug laws. It has not been private prisons that have led to an explosion of prisoners, but State-owned ones. The Prison Unions in California have spent a small fortune making sure more people are locked up for longer. This would not surprise Friedman I suspect. America is not a nation of prisons.

Stan June 27, 2013 at 5:25 pm

It’s obviously Paul Krugman. He’s provided a clear explanation of our economic plight, he’s been fearless in pointing out the intellectual vacuity of the austerity crowd, and he’s been right.

Abe Froman June 27, 2013 at 5:35 pm

There’s a MUCH better case for Scott Sumner being right that Paul Krugman.

If anything, Krugman is currently being proven been quite wrong. Monetary Policy seems very effective… even at the zero lower bound. The practical experiences of US fiscal stimulus and its problems (long lags, inefficiency, etc.) are much less effective.

F. Lynx Pardinus June 27, 2013 at 5:43 pm

We’re too close to the events. Give it another 5 years to let the economist dust settle.

Nylund June 27, 2013 at 5:59 pm

I don’t think the title of “most influential” is a direct result of being right or wrong. I think being right helps increase one’s influence, but being right isn’t necessary to being influential ( if only all influential people were indeed right!)

I think there is a decent argument for Krugman. While mostly about economics, he does delve into politics and occasionally other side topics. Being a columnist at the Times, all the blogging activity, his stints as a talking head on TV (not just in the US), and the Nobel Prize give him a lot of exposure. I think a great deal of people, whether they agree with him or not, know his opinion on a number of topics, and whether they concur or argue back its clear that Krugman has influenced the debate.

Pshrnk June 27, 2013 at 6:36 pm

Being right or wrong has little to do with being influential. Sarah Palin, Al Sharpton, etcetera have been influential.

adam.smith June 27, 2013 at 6:36 pm

I’m a big Krugman fan, but I don’t see where he has been all that influential. What’s the key policy area that he has actually shaped? I think Tyler was right in his old post on this.

Ricardo June 28, 2013 at 4:47 am

Krugman has always maintained that monetary policy can be effective at the zero lower bound but that the channel through which it works is inflation expectations (see his writings on Japan). Is there evidence that this view is mistaken?

Wonks Anonymous June 28, 2013 at 10:43 am

Nick Rowe comments on that here:

Personally I think all this talk is focused too much recent years in the U.S. Friedman is arguably responsible for a great many countries adopting floating exchange rates. Sumner would have to get multiple central banks to change their ways to be comparable. Still too early.

Don Geddis June 30, 2013 at 5:43 pm

I agree with your evaluation, that central banks would need to change actual behavior, for Sumner’s influence to approach Friedman’s. But, as you say, it’s still early. The change in central bank discussions (e.g. needing to address NGDP questions) in the last five years, is nothing short of astounding. Give Sumner another decade, and then re-evaluate. If major central banks DO change to (something like) NGDPLT, what will you think of Sumner then?

Don Geddis June 30, 2013 at 5:48 pm

Ricardo, you’re giving Krugman too much of a free pass. Yes, he’s very careful to always leave himself an out. But 99% of his words and effort (on the economic crisis) are about the need for fiscal stimulus, and the zero lower bound. His failure is that he committed his considerable energies and influence towards an ineffective, second-rate idea. As for the far superior idea of monetary stimulus, Krugman damns it with faint praise.

Yes, Krugman himself knows that monetary stimulus is possible at the zero lower bound, and might even be superior to fiscal stimulus. But not 1% of his readers realize that Krugman holds that opinion. He is extraordinarily misleading in his writing.

Doug M June 28, 2013 at 1:00 pm

I think there is a better argument for Rush Limbaugh than Paul Krugman.

They equally vacuous.

Matt June 27, 2013 at 5:44 pm

Deadpan humor doesn’t usually come across well in text.

Brian Donohue June 28, 2013 at 11:39 am

I really wish y’all could go live in your alternate universe where Krugman’s advice was followed. Thank God the guy is an ineffective blowhard.

JWatts June 27, 2013 at 5:27 pm

Also, what the hell is a “public intellectual”? Since, according to the other thread it apparently excludes scientists, inventors, engineers and successful politicians.

JWatts June 27, 2013 at 5:28 pm

Oh, and I forgot it also excludes successful businessmen.

Finch June 27, 2013 at 5:34 pm

Yeah, I would have thought Marc Andreessen, or maybe Jobs.

PStu June 27, 2013 at 6:16 pm

+1 for Jobs, who did as much as anyone over that time to change how everyone relates to computer technology. Jobs and Apple pushed computer technology onto a course where even your grandmother can pick up an iPad (or other tablet device) and use it with minimal instructions.

Finch June 27, 2013 at 6:24 pm

I’d have counted Jobs for really making mobile computing a reality. The idea that everybody would carry a sophisticated computer with internet access with them all the time and use it constantly in their everyday life is a big one. The smartphone is a major departure from the laptop. And the iPhone is much more a computer than a phone.

It’s got to be someone who played a big role in either the internet or mobile computing. Krugman is just some op-ed writer arguing about budgets. Right or wrong, there’s always a bunch of those. I can’t fathom how Sullivan makes the top 1000.

Yancey Ward June 27, 2013 at 7:06 pm

It also excludes influential intellectuals.

A Berman June 27, 2013 at 5:37 pm

Someone who leaves the real work to other people.

JWatts June 27, 2013 at 6:02 pm

I’m guessing that rules out Jimmy Wales from above, then. He got his hands dirty.

Pshrnk June 27, 2013 at 6:38 pm

While quieter about it than some, it may be interesting to see where someone like Peter Thiel would rank 30 years from now.

Rasputin June 27, 2013 at 9:14 pm

would Ayman al Zawahiri qualify?

Keith June 27, 2013 at 9:42 pm

Yes. Good one. I don’t agree with him but very influential intellectual.

alex June 27, 2013 at 5:33 pm

Francis Fukuyama

de Broglie June 27, 2013 at 5:35 pm

Fukuyama is an unimaginative luddite.

Larry Siegel June 28, 2013 at 1:07 am

Fukuyama’s neoliberal triumphalism leaves much to be desired, but he is neither unimaginative nor a Luddite.

Benedict June 28, 2013 at 4:30 am

Fukuyama didn’t set neoliberal policy. That was happening anyway. He was just the slickest PR man out there. Chomsky has had far more influence on public opinion, which is barely relevant given how little that influence has affected policy.

Fukuyama is a luddite to the extent that he likes analog photography and vinyl. That is, in the best possible sense.

albert magnus June 27, 2013 at 5:35 pm

Mickey Kaus was both an even earlier blogger than Sullivan and he seems to understand the disconnect between the concerns of voters and the overclass better than most liberals.

ziel June 27, 2013 at 6:13 pm

Mickey Kaus is right far too often to be influential.

Elliot June 27, 2013 at 5:36 pm

Leo Strauss?

Ken June 27, 2013 at 5:37 pm

John Yoo

Dan June 27, 2013 at 5:39 pm

Sullivan’s 1989 piece was published in The New Republic, not Slate, which didn’t exist until 1996.

Tyler Cowen June 27, 2013 at 6:54 pm

Thanks, corrected…

bmcburney June 27, 2013 at 5:46 pm

Milton Friedman to Andrew Sullivan? Have we really fallen that low? I hope not. Friedman to Cowan would be fall enough.

Travis Ormsby June 27, 2013 at 5:50 pm

I like the case for Sullivan, since I think gay rights generally and same sex marriage specifically are issues that have seen the some of the biggest changes in public opinion over the last 20 years. I also like Cory Doctorow as the face of the open source / copyfighter brigade. Jimbo Wales is not a bad choice either. Scott Sumner gets a lot of points for convincing a bunch of other public intellectuals that NGDP targeting is a good idea, but since nobody in power ever seemed to cotton to that idea, I don’t think he’s a contender for “most influential.”

For my money though, I’d say it’s Sergey Brin and Larry Page (I’m counting them as one person for this purpose) for ushering in the age of Big Data and Better Living Through Algorithms.

Wonks Anonymous June 28, 2013 at 10:54 am

I thought Larry Lessig was the face of the copyfighter brigade. Although Stallman was fighting for open source back when it was called “free software” instead.

Nate W. June 27, 2013 at 5:55 pm

In terms of intellectuals who have had an effect on what happens or how things get done, I’d think this year’s economic Nobelist Alvin Roth should be considered. Major hospital systems all across the country changed the way they allocate residencies because of his work on the stable allocation of resources in markets lacking a price signal.

I’d also like to suggest Eric Raymond, whose “The Cathedral and the Bazaar”, was the definitive early statement of the principles of good open source software development.

Keith June 27, 2013 at 5:56 pm

Christopher Hitchens? Influential when it came to religion especially islam and society. Bigger story in my mind than the place of homosexuality in society.

Andrew Breitbart? Guiding force in fracturing the news industry; one of the biggest events in my lifetime. Matt Drudge could fit here but he is too under the radar.

Bill Clinton? I always associate him with the business-friendly globalization zeitgeist that has swept the world in the last few decades. More than just his work with NAFTA, he seems to embody a certain globally-aware intellectual.

Bill Gates? Yes, a businessman, but come on, the growth of technology and non-profit organizations are two huge stories of our lives and he is a leader in both.

Finch June 27, 2013 at 6:12 pm

The window is too short to include Gates.

The most important thing to happen in the last 25 years was the development of the modern internet. That really post-dates Gates.

Miraj Patel June 27, 2013 at 6:22 pm

Mark Zuckerberg? Larry Page and Sergey Brin?

Finch June 27, 2013 at 6:26 pm

It’s unclear whether Zuckerberg will have any lasting influence. Page and Brin are possibilities, but maybe like saying Alfred Sloan instead of Henry Ford… They _are_ obvious candidates.

Keith June 27, 2013 at 6:27 pm

Maybe, but 25 years takes us all the way back to the late 1980’s. Bill Gates left Microsoft only in 2008. I would argue that he and Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs are the reasons we even thought to have computers in our personal possession in the first place. I take your point about not really leading the Internet charge though.

I would say his intellectual standing comes from the general question about technology’s place in our society and how it can be spread around the globe to make people’s lives better. That is a big theme of the last 25 years.

Finch June 27, 2013 at 6:32 pm

If the question had been about 40 years, he’d be the obvious candidate, but his (and Microsoft’s) influence was declining fast by 1995. I agree he’s one of the few most important people in the past century, but his time of contribution mostly predated the window in the question.

Michael B Sullivan June 27, 2013 at 8:47 pm

Microsoft’s influence was declining fast by 1995? Really? Win95 ushered in the decline of Microsoft’s influence?

You could argue for a decline for Microsoft circa Google’s rise to power (2000ish) or the iPhone’s introduction (2007), or just sometime in the early 21st Century when more and more of computing life moved onto the web and off the desktop, but I don’t think you can make that argument for 1995.

Finch June 27, 2013 at 9:01 pm

Yeah, Win95 was just a nice GUI. Microsoft’s big contributions were DOS and Office. By 1995 it was becoming obvious the internet would be very, very important, and Microsoft was nowhere to be found.

Look, I don’t doubt they had in 95, and still have roday, plenty of money to be make. But in the 80s they were leading and by 95 they were following.

Finch June 27, 2013 at 9:02 pm

Plug and Play was pretty impressive.

Keith June 27, 2013 at 9:13 pm

I looked at your comments at the top. Soooo, you are an Apple fan. That explains it :)
Just teasing you. You can switch in Steve Jobs if you want. I guess I would choose both.

Finch June 28, 2013 at 8:50 am

Ha! Now, I’m not a big Apple fan, although I have owned an iPhone. I just think Gates made major contributions in the 80s, and by the 90s his influence was waning. In my mind Gates gets credit for the PC, and maybe more importantly for the desktop computer in your office.

The reason I suggested Andreessen, and I had trouble coming up with just one name there, was that the most important thing to happen in the last 25 years was the internet. I don’t credit Jobs or Gates with that.

Michael B Sullivan June 28, 2013 at 3:33 pm

It is true that Microsoft was not surging into a dominant position in the internet in the late 90’s, but for them to be “following,” doesn’t that suggest that there was somebody that they actually followed? What is the company they followed? Are we going to argue for the dominance of the titans of late 90’s internet companies? I mean… AOL? Yahoo!?

Apple was, if anything, even less of a leader in the internet back then — it was pretty much irrelevant to the internet until about 2007. Google didn’t exist. The then-big-internet-companies were fared even worse on the internet than Microsoft did. The only company I could see retroactively taking as the leader that Microsoft followed was Amazon.

Which is actually a pretty interesting comparison. Amazon’s cloud computing services now definitely and seriously encroach on areas of the internet that Microsoft might have imagined it would play a dominant role, and as of 2013, you can definitely see Amazon as successful and dominant competitor to some areas of Microsoft’s former role. But in the late 90’s, Amazon was to all external appearances a bookstore, and didn’t seem like it had anything to do with Microsoft. I don’t know enough about Amazon’s internal history to say how much of the groundwork for its infrastructure role was being laid in the 90’s.

Finch June 28, 2013 at 3:46 pm

I think Win95 was an attempt to follow Apple, but I think by the late 90s Microsoft was attempting to follow Netscape.

I thought of James Barksdale as candidate for the most influential person in that time period.

Michael B Sullivan June 28, 2013 at 7:45 pm

I totally agree that you can read Win95 as deriving a lot of inspiration from Macs, and IE as deriving a lot of inspiration from Netscape, but it’s important to note that Win95 totally blew the popularity of contemporary Macs out of the water, and IE totally blew the popularity of Netscape out of the water.

I mean, Google probably drew a lot of inspiration from Altavista and other search engines. Do you regard Altavista as the leader and Google as the follower? The many influences of all kinds of shit on the iPod, iPhone, and iPad are extensively documented. Is Apple a follower? Win95 and IE became almost instance market-dominating presences in the late 90’s. IE in particular was terrible (except for a brief window when Netscape 4.0 was quite stale and the massively better browsers hadn’t come along yet), but it was incredibly dominant.

anon June 27, 2013 at 8:44 pm

+1 Christopher Hitchens

Kesava June 28, 2013 at 12:28 am

+1 Hitchens.

Larry Siegel June 30, 2013 at 4:56 am

Good, aware-of-the-big-picture choices.

Pshrnk June 27, 2013 at 5:56 pm

Gordon Gecko

David June 27, 2013 at 6:02 pm

The past discussion of these issues has ignored religious figures–why, I’m not sure.

In 100 years, people will still read Pope Benedict.

In 1,000 years, people will still read Pope John Paul II.

CIP June 27, 2013 at 6:13 pm

But hopefully, just for laughs.

Vernunft June 27, 2013 at 6:16 pm

Hoho, people believed in things back then! Not like us! -future guy

David June 27, 2013 at 9:04 pm

I mean seriously–if not approvingly–the way Augustine and Aquinas are read. John Paul was that level of intellect. Andrew Sullivan? Not so much.

Nate W June 27, 2013 at 6:23 pm

I’m not sure Popes should count, but religious intellectuals definitely should. L Ron Hubbard definitely changed how a lot of people did things in the world, though he’s too old to fit into the 25 year window.

Jan June 27, 2013 at 7:56 pm

I don’t find that they have done anything really remarkable.

Wonks Anonymous June 28, 2013 at 10:57 am

I had been under the impression that Benedict was the more intellectual of the two. Although John Paul will be famous as the Polish pope who stood up to the communists.

John Brennan June 27, 2013 at 6:04 pm

Note that this was a NEW REPUBLIC essay originally. This falls in line with the importance of the NEW REPUBLIC as an organ for public intellectuals since its inception in 1914–Walter Lippman, Herbert Croly, John Dewey, Lewis Mumford, George Orwell, Reinhold Neibuhr, W.E.B. Dubois, Irving Kristol, Edward Luttwak, and Pat Moynihan, among many others. I don’t think that Sullivan approaches the intellectual power of ANY of these public intellecutals, but the NEW REPUBLIC connection is important.

CIP June 27, 2013 at 6:11 pm

I would like to think it was Paul Krugman, but I’m afraid it might be Ayn Rand – no matter when she died.

Publius June 27, 2013 at 6:26 pm

I admit to being somewhat bemused by the assumed importance which both sides of the gay marriage debate place on the issue. By all means I do not underestimate the importance of the issue to those people directly affected by the issue – but I’m talking about those of us who aren’t. On a society-wide level, is this really “The Great Question of Our Times” like so many seem to treat it?

Even limiting the query to the past 25 years, and even limiting it to issues of *homosexual rights specifically,* the decriminalization of homosexuality seems to me to be a significantly more important development than gay marriage. Like, orders of magnitude more.

I will say, gay marriage may have set all-time records for speed at which an idea went from the point where you were basically lunatic fringe if you supported it, to the point where you’re basically lunatic fringe if you oppose it. In, what, 20 years? less? That’s fairly remarkable.

Keith June 27, 2013 at 6:36 pm

Yeah, I don’t get it either.
For ~95% of the population I don’t think it really registers as being important. They have an opinion about it, but it doesn’t affect their lives like technology or globalization.

I would say an intellectual’s standing has to take into account the impact of their field on the world as well as their intellect.

Anon June 27, 2013 at 6:53 pm

I feel I need to be anon for this comment. I really sincerely don’t mean it to be anti-gay.

In 200 years the gay marriage thing will be a forgotten memory. Assuming homosexuality has some biological basis (genetic, epigenetic, viral, hormonal, chemical, some combination or something else altogether), it will be discovered in the not-too-distant future. Shortly after it’s discovered, it will be found to be manipulable. Shortly after that, the trait will disappear from the population. There just won’t be gay people around in 2200 to care.

Yancey Ward June 27, 2013 at 7:21 pm

I don’t disagree, but it will be an epic battle with one side calling it a cure and the other side calling it genocide.

zbicyclist June 28, 2013 at 12:18 am

Perhaps much like the deaf community, which often opposes the use of cochlear implants.

bxg June 27, 2013 at 7:33 pm

Fair point IMO, but given 200 years of continued advancement of the type you contemplate and in particular in manipulating human nature, what survives? Equally plausibly, marriage itself does not survive in a recognizably similar form? Sex itself? Gender itself? (I.e. as we understand them today, with the constraints and implications we don’t even question.) I can see many paths whereby the “gay” part of “gay marriage” will be among the least of the puzzlements for a 2220 historian contemplating the issue.

But let’s speculate wildly anyway. Perhaps in 2200 gay marriage is still regarded as a critical step in human social evolution, because it is seen as recognizing rights that don’t obviously adhere to a strong sociological or historical bias. And so yes, gay marriage itself be perhaps a non-issue. Yet perhaps the robots and other fully-synthetic beings without human DNA might still celebrate it enthusiastically – as they trace their own achievement of fully equal rights in all spheres directly back to this time in history.

Yancey Ward June 27, 2013 at 7:47 pm

In 2200, we will be marrying our LoveBots, or wanting to.

bxg June 27, 2013 at 8:09 pm

> In 2200, we will be marrying our LoveBots, or wanting to.

And if we can marry them, rather than just wanting to, we will trace that opportunity directly back the global gay marriage social phase-change in the 201x’s.

(The idea that, when this question even comes up, marriage itself still makes sense, seems hopelessly conservative and implausible … but I know I’m taking you too seriously :-)

uffy June 27, 2013 at 10:18 pm

You think the fact that sexuality exists on a continuum will be ended by some sort of genetic intervention?


shrikanthk June 27, 2013 at 11:02 pm

How confident are we that it has a biological basis?

Owen June 28, 2013 at 8:59 am

Speaking very much off the cuff, and not as a scientist, I recall that a variety of explanations have been proposed for homosexuality, and the most likely current explanation is: a bit of everything. A bit genetic, but also the womb environment, etc.

And in reply to Anon: I think you’re mostly wrong but not anti-gay. I grew up in a tolerant, liberal environment where plenty of kids were “out” by high school or early college (I’m 24). They seem to be quite happy, by and large, and their classmates and friends accepted them. That sphere of “acceptance” is steadily growing. By no means is it universal, but homosexuality has very very rapidly become something which you cannot object to in polite society. What percentage of parents, then, do you think would intentionally select against homosexuality in their kids? That partly depends on how difficult it is to screen out homosexuality– is it genetic, biological, etc. If the process involved any significant degree of effort or expense, I would guess the proportion of couples who’d do it is less than 25%. If it were easier, perhaps as high as 40%. These are very generous estimates, I think. I would expect that the nebulous “continuation of the DNA” impulse would run into a very strong sense of cognitive dissonance–if being gay is OK, why am I interfering to prevent my kid from being gay?

One thing I *would* expect is homosexuality to begin concentrating itself in the more liberal, bourgeois communities and disappearing in conservative families. Since people tend to marry within these sociopolitical circles, the trend might be fairly rapid. But I can’t see many Bostonians or San Franciscans choosing to toss out their gay embryos.

Anon June 28, 2013 at 10:04 am

It’s possible. My comment was speculative and it’s hard to know what people will do. But it’s also possible that your prenatal vitamin will take care of it, or your vaccinations will take care of it as with deafness and rubella. We may not even know the cause until we start finding a big drop off in the gay population of 20 year old people and trace it back. But assuming parents have to act, and that act is not too invasive, I speculate that compliance will be very high. By analogy, how many liberal parents actually send their kids to diverse schools? Talk is cheap. If you were part of a gay couple, what would you do for your child?

(Not That) Bill O'Reilly June 28, 2013 at 10:09 am

Owen –

I think you overly conflate tolerance and acceptance with preference. If you grew up straight, you might not have any strong objection to raising a homosexual child, but it could still create a barrier to your forming a strong relationship with them simply because you won’t be able to identify with them as easily. If/when society starts moving towards “designer babies” through genetic manipulation and selective abortion, I suspect the latent impulse many parents have to create a miniature version of themselves will steer many of the decisions that “could go either way,” such as hair color and sexual orientation.

(Not That) Bill O'Reilly June 28, 2013 at 10:02 am

It really won’t even require manipulation – selective abortion has a good chance of eviscerating the homosexual population if and when a genetic basis is discovered.

However, there will likely be countervailing pressure from advancements in reproductive technology (insemination, artificial wombs, etc.) that will allow the LGBT community to self-perpetuate outside of ordinary sexual reproduction.

Wonks Anonymous June 28, 2013 at 12:23 pm

On the face of it, decriminalization seems more important. But apparently the law wasn’t really being enforced, so DOMA may have more practical effects. Even so, we’re talking about a rather small percent of the population when compared to something like the civil rights movement (which also touched on a wider number of areas).

rz0 June 27, 2013 at 6:53 pm

True intellectual force outlives the thinker. That’s why in the short-term you can argue Arthur Laffer has been more influential than Krugman. Certainly his policy prescriptions influenced more legislation.

TMC June 27, 2013 at 7:26 pm

Arthur had the benefit of being correct more often.

Wonks Anonymous June 28, 2013 at 12:26 pm

He’s most known for drawing a curve on a napkin, and he didn’t even invent it. Keynes makes reference to the “Laffer curve” before it was called that. It was also Jude Wanniski who did the most to popularize it in the WSJ. I think Jude was cast out of polite company for his foreign policy views though.

Yancey Ward June 27, 2013 at 7:03 pm

Well, if we give him some congratulations, maybe we can finally get a definitive answer on the incredibly important question about the parentage of Trigg?

Steve Sailer June 27, 2013 at 7:08 pm

Here’s a fascinating article Andrew Sullivan wrote for the NYT Magazine in 2001 in which he attributes the revival of his career to his juicing himself with prescription testosterone:


Ralph Emmers June 27, 2013 at 7:15 pm

Samuel P. Huntington. His Clash of Civilizations article was published in 1993. His 2005 “Who Are We?” about America’s identity will also remain relevant with 52 million+ native Spanish speakers living in the United States.

A non-Anglo candidate: Shintaro Ishihara, who wrote “The Japan That Can Say No” in 1989. In 2012 he announced his intent to buy the Senkaku islands, which led the Japanese government to buy them instead, increasing the chances of conflict with China.

Wonks Anonymous June 28, 2013 at 12:29 pm

And you’re leaving out his earlier work on “The Soldier and the State”, the crisis of governance/democracy and the other stuff that inspired a protest against his inclusion in the NAS.

Yancey Ward June 27, 2013 at 7:18 pm

As for Krugman, only two outcomes await his public legacy- (1) he will be completely forgotten within 5 years of his death, or (2) he will be burned in effigy by the public at regular occasions.

I personally think 1 is far more likely than 2.

Jan June 27, 2013 at 8:05 pm

I really don’t think it’s possible he’d be forgotten so quickly. His haters will continue to rail against him well past his death. I mean, have you see the comments from people on this blog? Their preoccupation with him is deeply rooted.

Yancey Ward June 27, 2013 at 8:13 pm

His haters will celebrate the death, and then never mention his name again. His supporters will forget him, too, and move on to the next living pundit.

Jan June 27, 2013 at 8:20 pm

Why, for having such a large following/presence now, do you believe he will be forgotten quickly?

He seems to span both academic and mainstream economic and political circles, which I think only improves his chances of being a presence after death.

derek June 27, 2013 at 10:02 pm

It was interesting to watch the Krugmanesque folks disappear from serious conversation when Canada hit it’s fiscal crisis a couple decades back. So along these lines I would suggest David A Dodge, who was famous for saying “bullshit” in Ministry of Finance meetings. He was the senior civil servant in that department, and the politicians and aides would come up with Krugmanesque solutions to the problem. He would say that famous word, explain why it was nonsense. He was convincing, the Liberal government followed his policy suggestions, cut spending and stopped deficit spending.

I hope someone is Washington is saying ‘bullshit’ to the administration and congressional stupidity that is put forward.

Jan June 27, 2013 at 11:40 pm

I suppose the anti-Krugmanesque approach is blowing the lid off of GDP growth expectations in the UK and Greece. Bullshit?

Andrew' June 28, 2013 at 12:29 pm

1. Nobody cares that much about him outside of his horrid partisan style.
2. Even his supporters.

Ad Nauseum June 28, 2013 at 2:11 pm

He will be forgotten, most of his followers are in the political spectrum. All they do is copy and paste his articles to try and close a political argument, and act as if he has the final say bc he has a Nobel prize. (not realizing their opponent’s eye rolling once they realize they’re arguing with a left wing tape recorder)

The number of Krugmanites who have actually read and studied his academic work is extremely low. Once his politics fall out of favor he will be forgotten by the masses, but hopefully studied by aspiring economists, as his research is valuable to the profession.

Nate W. June 27, 2013 at 7:30 pm

Also, I think Bill James, public face of sabremetrics, is a serious contender.

Popeye June 28, 2013 at 12:35 am

This is actually a really good pick — for example, see here for evidence of influence. James is definitely a forerunner of Nate Silver, another reasonably influential person.

Aidan June 28, 2013 at 5:00 pm

I actually really love this pick.

Jeff R. June 27, 2013 at 7:30 pm

Wait ten more years. If circumcision is still legal, it’s not Sullivan.

Anon June 27, 2013 at 7:44 pm

Not clear . Can you please clarify the connection?

Jeff R. June 28, 2013 at 2:44 pm

Among Sullivan’s more…contrarian issues and hobbyhorses, that is one of the few that calls for a clear and definable change in policy and social norms. If he either is driving national opinion or even is consistently ahead of the Zeitgeist, one would expect to see a repeat performance on that issue.

EnerGeoPolitics June 27, 2013 at 7:56 pm

unless Trigg Palin is confirmed as Sarah’s grandson

Andrew' June 28, 2013 at 12:00 pm

So, circumcision will either be banned or legally required (because it reduces HIV transmission).

same as ever.

Yancey Ward June 27, 2013 at 7:39 pm

Given the constraint of “last 25 years”, it is actually difficult to argue against the pick of Sullivan. I can certainly think of no other public intellectual that was more in the forefront of the Gay Rights movement, and it is hard to think of another social development that has made such a turnabout in that time frame. As much as I admired Steve Jobs, I don’t think he was really that important to the shape of technology that is available today- he was just first to market with really good versions of products that were coming about anyway. I would discount Friedman simply because he had done his important work prior to 1988, and the changes you can lay at his feet had already started in the late 70s and early 80s, though they did continue right through to today.

Keith June 27, 2013 at 9:55 pm

Steve Jobs just produced me too products but Sullivan somehow gave birth to new sexual lifestyles?
I would be more amazed at the swift acceptance of homosexuality if there weren’t already open free-love movements like the Oneida colony in upstate New York or polygamy in the Mormon religion. These trends come and go through history.

EnerGeoPolitics June 27, 2013 at 7:41 pm

Even though most of his career was earlier than your 25 year window, most of the effects of Deng Xiaoping’s transformation of China to a market oriented economy have been felt within that window – and will be felt ever more going forward. Although some will object to calling a political leader a public intellectual.

Hardt & Negri have had a lot of influence over the last ~15 years, as well. They should certainly be on the list of nominees.

Anon(Male) June 27, 2013 at 7:42 pm

We take women’s lib and rise to power ( amazing we don’t blink twice at the number of countries headed by women leaders and those like US and France where they came close) for granted now , but for the prior 25 years could consider a combination of Betty Friedan,Germaine Greer, Simone de Beauvoir.

Jan June 27, 2013 at 8:01 pm

I think these answers have strayed a bit from what I might consider public intellectuals. But as long as were naming just about anyone, I’d say Gorbachev.

Anon June 27, 2013 at 8:40 pm

I was surprised he didn’t make it in the Top 3 of Time’s “Man of the Century.”

Willitts June 27, 2013 at 8:06 pm

When you said public intellectual, I guess I interpret that differently than everyone else. I’m thinking intellectual writers, researchers, scientists who have influenced public policy.

I would suggest The Bernanke, Larry Summers, Cass Sunstein, Noam Chomskey, Michael Mann.

This reveals some biases on my part, first toward US policy, then toward national policy, and then largely toward business or social policy.

Several intellectuals have had a substantial influence over state policies, over special issues such as education, public health, medical care; and policy wonks in other countries with more centralised government.

I think we are missing the most important people perhaps whose names don’t roll off the tongue.

MD June 28, 2013 at 4:04 pm

I mostly agree, but if their names don’t roll off the tongue, then maybe they aren’t particually “public.”

Steve Sailer June 27, 2013 at 8:19 pm

Gay marriage is a minor symbolic victory denoting the power and status of gays. The true historic change was Gay Liberation, which took place in the years centered around 1969, which led to the AIDS epidemic.

Yancey Ward June 27, 2013 at 8:20 pm

Though, I would argue that Kevin Kline actually had more to do with it than Sullivan.

matt June 29, 2013 at 12:28 am

actually, i find that this answer is the very reason why andrew sullivan is not remotely in the discussion.

Steve Sailer June 27, 2013 at 8:23 pm

The last 25 years strike me as a hangover from the 1970s battles between Harvard biologists Stephen Jay Gould and Edward O. Wilson.

Richard Harper June 27, 2013 at 8:28 pm

Sometimes clarification is found by turning it all around. Who is the most influential of all the ~anti~ intellectual? Rupert Murdoch, or perhaps Roger Ailes? Sadly for now the spread of deep-thinking mostly fails.

8 June 27, 2013 at 8:33 pm


Sergei Witte June 27, 2013 at 8:46 pm

Stopped reading his blog when he brought in a bunch other people to write for him.

Steve Sailer June 27, 2013 at 10:08 pm

Last five years? Could be.

Fazal Majid June 27, 2013 at 9:03 pm

Too parochial by far. The most influential changes are those affecting countries or regions with large populations, i.e. China, India and to a lesser extent Africa.

I’d say Lee Kuan Yew, former PM of Singapore, who convinced Deng Xiaoping to switch China to free market economics. In terms of betterment of humanity (compare China’s current prosperity to famines that routinely killed tens of millions during Mao’s tenure), no other trend in the last 25 years comes even remotely close.

One Weak Loon June 27, 2013 at 9:20 pm

Might as well pick Deng himself.

Fazal Majid June 28, 2013 at 12:52 am

I am assuming the distinction between a “public intellectual” and a statesman is the former needs to convince the latter through the force of ideas. Granted, as PM of Singapore, Lee could use the stunning rise of his country under his rule as a practical case study rather than a theoretical argument.

RM June 27, 2013 at 9:15 pm


Rasputin June 27, 2013 at 9:22 pm

Don’t forget about Count Count.

Dismalist June 27, 2013 at 9:21 pm

Aside from Milton Friedman, I’ve never heard of most of these people, and have read hardly anything or nothing by those I have heard of. Have I missed much?

RPLong June 27, 2013 at 9:30 pm

I’m not really in tune with these things, but the first two names that came to my mind were Joseph Stiglitz (even though I disagree with most of his politics) and Muhammed Yunus.

Nick June 27, 2013 at 9:39 pm

Nassim Taleb hands down. He is a polygot, polymath, autodidact and an original thinker trying to propose new ideas (anti-fragility and black swans).

Pshrnk June 27, 2013 at 9:53 pm

A good popularizer but hardly original.

Steve Sailer June 27, 2013 at 10:09 pm

“He is a polygot, polymath, autodidact and an original thinker”

And one heck of a modest guy, too.

Steve Sailer June 27, 2013 at 10:09 pm

If you don’t believe that, just ask Taleb.

shrikanthk June 27, 2013 at 9:56 pm

The whole brouhaha over gay marriage is a sign of civilizational decline and loose thinking.
The fact that we are positioning it as a significant civilizational advancement is worrying.

Marriage by definition is a union between a man and a woman that results in kids. It is a legal relationship that has evolved over the past 10000 years keeping in mind the unique asymmetries that exists between the sexes. There is no reason why all these laws should be transferred to a same-sex union which has none of the same asymmetries!

It looks like only the conservatives have been able to think straight in this regard.

Cimon Alexander June 28, 2013 at 4:59 am

I agree that no matter how you look at it, Gay Marriage is one of the most unimportant political issues of world history.

shrikanthk June 27, 2013 at 10:01 pm

I’d go with Thomas Sowell. I suspect history will prove him prophetic 100 years down the line. His intellectual stances combine common sense free market libertarianism with a rugged conservative belief in Western civilizaton and traditions.

There have been a couple of bizarre doomsday scenarios suggested by him –
– US under military rule in a couple of generations
– US under shariat law in a couple of generations.

Neither is likely in the least. However I suspect their probability is a little higher than most people think.

derek June 27, 2013 at 10:07 pm

I wouldn’t ignore his doomsday scenarios. I can imagine someone being prosecuted for criticizing Islam. And I can imagine the New York Times cheering the prosecutor on.

Jan June 27, 2013 at 11:46 pm

I can imagine a state legislating a ban on Sharia law “just in case.” Oh yeah, because six states have actually done it.

No question someone goes to jail for criticizing Islam within the next 5 years. Free speech will not be a factor when the the New York Times takes over-they in fact despise it.

Owen June 28, 2013 at 10:02 am

Please, go back to Pamela Geller’s blog. Yes, US under shariah law, thanks to a impressive coup staged by 2.7 million people, or less than 1% of the country’s population?

I hear these stories about how shariah law is rapidly creeping up on America, and they usually turn out to be one of the following:
-Muslim gets exemption from workplace duty that offends his religious conscience (eg handling pork/alcohol), under “reasonable accommodation” clause that applies equally to Christians, Jews, etc.
-Muslim commits honor killing or other “Muslim-y” crime; is prosecuted. Still somehow an example of sharia. Or, if not prosecuted, his escape from justice is 100% due to sharia.
-Muslims convince workplace/university to add footbaths
-Muslim gets special holidays (just like Jews!)
-Someone insults Islam, gets fired.

I actually agree somewhat with those warning against the sharia-ization of Europe, but you have much larger Muslim populations in those countries, weak church/state separation, and weak free speech protection. “Dealing” with Islam in those countries has meant having a “national culture” but then “accommodating” other cultures, which sometimes means arresting citizens who speak against those other cultures. The US, but not giving “culture” much of a role in considerations of free speech, etc., has largely avoided these problems.

TedBaxter June 27, 2013 at 10:06 pm

Charles Murray. The fact that he so upsets Cathedral-approved PC intellectuals means he must be onto something.

Cimon Alexander June 28, 2013 at 4:56 am

How about Mencius Moldbug, the man that invented the “Cathedral” and triggered a renaissance of the far, far, far right?

Wonks Anonymous June 28, 2013 at 12:37 pm

No. Hardly anyone is aware of Mencius relative to Murray. And for good reason, it can be a good use of time to read Murray. Murray has been credited as a major influence on 1990s welfare reforms, which is more than we can say in terms of influence for many other people suggested here.

MG June 28, 2013 at 10:32 am

You beat me to this. His claim has only gotten stronger through the years, and after “Coming Apart”, I think even many in the Cathedral have begun to see that what he has been saying was true. (I found the Sullivan suggestion typical of the bloggshere — topical trumps time tested, even when the answer to the question is supposed to resonate over a 25 year time frame.

shrikanthk June 27, 2013 at 10:07 pm

Before Sowell conservatism and libertarianism always seemed like two different strands of thinking.
People like Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman were hardly conservatives or traditionalists.

Sowell is the first major thinker I know who has been able to clearly articulate the linkages between free market libertarianism and social conservatism and why each needs the other.

Ricardo June 28, 2013 at 2:24 am

Isn’t this fusion between conservatism and free market libertarianism simply called “conservatism”? Sowell was also a popularizer of Hayek, who was also sympathetic to traditionalism but also wrote “Why I am Not a Conservative.”

Wonks Anonymous June 28, 2013 at 12:39 pm

Zounds, have you never heard of “fusionism” from the old National Review days? Sowell was a big influence on me in my younger days, but it wasn’t due to that.

Steve Sailer June 27, 2013 at 10:12 pm

The top English language intellectual in his prime during the last 15-20 years would seem to me to be Pinker.

Hazel Meade June 28, 2013 at 10:15 am

Pinker is a great and influential philosopher within the field, but I don’t think he has have much if any impact on public opinion.

KL June 27, 2013 at 10:29 pm

Didn’t Sullivan get outed for secretly advertising HIV-positive sex while writing about AIDS and gay issues. What does it take to become a pariah?

So Much For Subtlety June 27, 2013 at 11:19 pm

In fairness he told people he had the disease. Foucault may or may not have cruised gay bars in San Francisco, after he knew he had HIV, having sex with as many men as possible without telling them or taking precautions.

Neither of which detracts from their position as intellectuals.

mike June 28, 2013 at 10:16 am

“What does it take to become a pariah?”

Getting caught having said “nigger”, ever.

Willitts June 28, 2013 at 11:43 am


Wonks Anonymous June 28, 2013 at 12:42 pm

Quentin Tarantino doesn’t seem to be a pariah.

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