Survival of the Richest

Fri, 17/02/2023 - 04:03
Fri, 17/02/2023 - 04:03

Oxfam's Economic Justice Director, Nabil Ahmed, and Oxfam International's Inequality Policy & Advocacy Lead, Max Lawson, discuss their latest Global Inequality Report, which highlights the accelerating pace at which the world's billionaires have increased their wealth exponentially in recent years. They also discuss the ways in which governments can reverse this trend through taxation.

Download the report here.

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Rob Johnson:

Welcome to Economics and Beyond. I'm Rob Johnson, President of the Institute for New Economic Thinking.

I'm here today with a team that I've always admired and worked with before. Max Lawson has been on this podcast with me previously, and he and Nabil Ahmed have put together a new report called "Survival of the Richest," which echoes Doug Rushkoff's of NYU's book of the same name.

But this report and your previous reports emphasize what's happening in poverty, in distribution, and in the wellbeing and what you might call the sustainability of a social system where enormous concentrations of wealth have been created. And I guess I'm here to explore with you the ramifications of these things that you have, what you might call, shined a light upon.

Thanks for joining me, guys. And let's just start right away. Why did you write this report? What are you trying to impart to the conversation of humankind?

Nabil Ahmed:

Rob, the world faces an extreme crisis of wealth inequality and we put this report out to remind the world of that, to shine a light on this crisis, as you so aptly put it in your introduction, but we also do it, Rob, really to hold the powerful to account.

We released this report, we time it with Davos, really what we call this festival of wealth, where some of the world's richest people, most powerful corporations and two government leaders come together to hang out in the Swiss Alps. And we share some uncomfortable truths in that moment.

There are many ways to understand what's going on in the economy, and we read that in the financial papers every day, but perhaps as important as any lens of analysis is understanding what's happening to wealth concentration. It speaks to how resources are distributed in our society, but also Rob, how power is also.

And this report, and we'd love to go into it with you, you can almost imagine there was a sign, Rob, outside Davos as these guys arrived and it would say, "Welcome to the new Roaring '20s, folks," because that's what some of these numbers start to show.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah, it does. It does. How would I say? You can sense those echoes. I wasn't alive then, of course, but the parables that were told by my parents who were born in the '20s and the ramifications thereafter loomed very large. And I've often told people that's why I became an economist because of my mother whose mother was German father was Scottish. They came to the United States, got wiped out in the Depression. I believe my grandfather was working in the post office to try to just hold on. And my mother, years later. who had a master's degree from University of Michigan, my dad was a doctor, was still very anxious.

And so the echoes. I'm often referring people to the writings of Jane Jacobs and her last book was all about the scar tissue of the '20s and '30s and how it affected the priorities of society for forever after that.

But I'm very pleased or very excited that you bring this up to date. Let's go through what you might call the nature of your findings. What are you seeing right now when you take a snapshot of the roaring whatever? Maybe we'll call it the roaring 2021s.

Max Lawson:

Yeah, 2022. So I think, well, we've been doing this report for 10 years now, Rob, and all I can say is I'm glad my pay is not performance-related because the wealth of billionaires has doubled in that time and their number has doubled in that time and inequality's got a lot worse.

But what's happened since 2020 is really quite dramatic. You have this really significant acceleration in the amount of wealth going to the richest 1%. And that's the headline from this year's report. So over the last decade, about half of all new wealth went to the richest 1%, about half, which is already pretty appalling. But since 2020, it's more like two-thirds. So two-thirds of all new wealth is going to the top 1% and there's a gradient even above that, so the kind of even steeper benefits for the super rich, and of course the world's billionaires getting richer by $2.7 billion a day, so this massive explosion in wealth at the top.

And then I think the other key message is that over the last 10 years, it is the case that we've seen extreme poverty steadily reduced, and that's been an amazing thing. And since COVID-19 and now the cost of living food crisis that we're seeing as Oxfam all over the world, incredible suffering, I mean suffering I haven't seen in two decades of working for Oxfam, all over the world, food prices going up, people unable to feed their kids. And very similar, if you like, to the year of the Great Depression. That juxtaposition of rising poverty and rising wealth we haven't seen in 25, 30 years.

So those are the two big things: an acceleration in the wealth at the top, and at the same time, a kind of turnaround in that success story, if you like, the gradual reduction in extreme poverty coming to a shuttering halt and seeing that start to increase instead in the face of food price crisis, COVID crisis, just the polycrisis as we're all calling it these days.

Rob Johnson:

Yes. Well, from the Institute for New Economic Thinking, we're often trying to say what is the storyline of economics and why does that not explain where we are now?

And the parable is always, if you give individual entrepreneurs freedom, with that freedom, they'll be unconstrained and produce more that can then, how would you say, be diffused. The rising tide will raise all boats. And it feels like there was an element of that with the diffusion of manufacturing skills and some digital skills all around the Global South for a time, the kind of things Branko Milanović puts together in some of his research.

But I'm concerned now that it doesn't feel like that rising tide is raising all boats. I think a whole lot of boats are stuck on the reef. And then there are a couple of boats that are, how would I say, now ocean liners and we just don't see a diffusion of wealth so that broad-based prosperity is there. And in such an environment, at least in the United States, many people say this was the birth of Donald Trump, or more generically, what fosters despair that creates submission to authoritarian rule or the temptation to submit to that.

Well, let's talk about what's the data? What are the symptoms inside? And then we'll talk about what would you think we should do about it? If you were giving the keynote address at Davos next year, what would you be advising, recommending, urging, or demanding of that wealthy crowd?

Nabil Ahmed:

Yeah, Rob, I think let's start with understanding how they got so unbelievably rich right at the top. And there's a longer term crisis here. There's something specific to the last few years and I think it's useful to interrogate that because we see a few things have happened. Let's focus on three broad areas.

Number one is at the start of the pandemic, Rob, we saw governments, rich governments especially rightly pumped trillions of dollars into financial markets, into their economies to ensure their survival at a real time of crisis. But without the guardrails in place in our economies, the asset boom, the stock market boom that resulted from that injection really lined the pockets of the very, very richest of the billionaires. And again, those guardrails that could have ensured a fairer distribution of that new wealth just simply weren't in place. It's number one.

Number two, Rob, I think we really need to talk about corporate greed and what corporations have been up to here because over this last few years, we've seen this corporate smash and grab, we can call it, for profit that's driven inequality, but it's also exacerbated and exploited inflation.

Our data shows, for example, just in 2022, you've got 95 food and energy corporations whose profits have doubled at a time where, as Max was sharing, people are struggling here in the US, right across the world, to put food on the table, to fill up the gas tank. And that's something we've witnessed and we can talk across the industries here. It's food and energy and that's a key driver. It's also pharma. Pharma, at one point, three of the biggest pharma corporations were profiting, Rob, $1,000 a second. That's unheard of because of the way that they monopolized those COVID-19 vaccines that were funded by the taxpayer.

But the third piece, let's look at the longer term trend here, and I think we've seen the playbook of the 1%, as we sometimes like to call it, really in full swing. And you can talk about here the increased market concentration that we see across industries. The IMF, for example, even the IMF worried that we've seen an increase in market concentration during the pandemic period as much as a 15-year period prior to it.

There's pieces here on workers' rights, but there's also taxation. Our data analyzing governments across the world showed that 95% of governments either froze or cut taxes, Rob, on the rich, on corporations. And so you have this perfect storm of trillions of dollars ending up lining the pockets of billionaires, of this corporate smashing grab, and this playbook of the 1% up in full swing really driving this crisis today.

And we need, going to your question, I don't know if I will get the address in Davos, maybe Max will be lucky enough to get that address someday soon, but there's a number of things as you know, Rob, that we can do. It has to be structural, it has to be ambitious, it has to be evidence-based and learn from history and we can go to history. But with this report, we're saying one of the most important things we can do, a strategic precondition to getting to a more equal economy, is taxing the super wealthy.

And we can dive deeper there, but there's a number of actions that governments across the world can take and that's one of the most powerful tools that we have at our disposal.

Rob Johnson:

Well, it's an interesting question. There's a difference between seeing what to recommend and predicting what will happen. And one of the things that's been of great concern to me is that people have often asserted that when you embed the capitalist economy inside a democracy, that democracy governs it and therefore it's morally legitimate. But when you have things like massive campaign contributions, or in the United States, the liberation of unchecked and unreported massive contributions, whether from companies or from people, when the media depends upon advertising and chooses what to scrutinize and what not to scrutinize or when university endowments choose experts but they get their money from that concentrated wealth, are they going to choose experts that challenge the system?

So I think there's a great deal of what I'll call the common man or common woman questioning the legitimacy of governments now, and this is in part what Donald Trump fanned the flames of when he came in. He said, "The system is rigged." [inaudible 00:13:26] I haven't heard a guy say that that was a real candidate for a long time and the system is rigged and I'm scared from my children.

So I'm talking, that's a United States point of view, but the other dimension of this is with globalization, the notion of what is a nation state, you talked in that last passage about cutting taxes for the wealthy. Maybe a lot of these places are desperate to attract capital so that they can rebuild and that's the only thing they think works and they don't have the power to tax the wealth and then have it distributed to the needs of their people.

I don't know. I'm just saying, there seems to be a whole lot of contradiction between the parable of free markets embedded in democracy and the kind of outcomes we're experiencing. And I know for instance, Martin Wolf has a new book that I believe comes out today on the crisis of capitalist democracy that echoes many of the same concerns that you're expressing to me in this conversation.

Max Lawson:

Yeah. I mean, obviously Oxfam's main space, the place we feel most comfortable talking about is the developing world and what's happening in Africa, in Asia, and Latin America.

And on this issue of tax, I think it was really interesting, Rob, to see the massive... Well, two things. I think over the last 40 years, what that kind of ideology, if you like, is translated into has been a massive increase in sales taxes VAT across the world.

So if you're the IMF and you arrive in Kenya, your first piece of advice is, "Oh, you need to get your revenue up. Let's implement VAT. We can worry about inequality later. You just need to get some tax revenue in." And that means we now have these hugely regressive tax systems all over the developing world that are very reliant on a tax that is disproportionately paid by the poorest and by women and very, very little investment and time in kind of replicating the taxation of rich people that we have in the history of our own countries.

Meanwhile, in the rich world, we were busy dismantling those same taxes. So I think one of the best facts in the report, to my mind, is that half of the world's billionaires now live in countries where there is no inheritance tax on bequests to your children. Now you have $5 trillion worth of assets that they can pass on to their privileged kids without a penny going to the tax man. And you don't have to be on the left progressively to be worried about that. If you want a level playing field and you want equality of opportunity, you're creating a brand new aristocracy.

And that doesn't even include the US. I mean, we even said the US counts as a country with an estate tax, but I think we all know that the number of carve-outs and the way that estate tax has been absolutely eviscerated in recent decades means that many of those billionaires will be handing most of their money onto their children tax-free too.

So there are basic things that every country can do. And what's really interesting, Rob, is that we found countries that have done it. So a country like Colombia, for instance, already collects 4% of GDP through wealth taxes. Morocco is about 2% of GDP through wealth taxes. At every level of income, you find countries that have been able to buck the trend, that are beginning to raise income taxes on the richest.

So one of our key messages is as an international community, let's get behind those countries that share that learning and let's get as many countries across the Global South increasing taxation on wealthy people and corporations to as fair a level as they can. But that can't be done on its own. We also are very much continuing to fight for the kind of international coordination. We've seen recent deals on corporate tax, which are not nearly good enough, but at least show that global corporation is possible with a global minimum tax rate for corporates. Let's see a minimum tax rate for billionaires as well. Let's end an era where Jeff Bezos has an effective tax rate of less than 1% or Elon Musk as an effective tax rate of less than 3%. I mean, let's turn that around.

Nabil Ahmed:

And Rob, just building on there from Max as well, your question is an important one. There is so much we can learn from other countries. There's also something we can learn from the history of the United States here where we're speaking from right now where the US has literally gone from having the most progressive tax system in the world, as economists like Gabriel Zuckerman and others have showed, to one in which billionaires pay a lower tax rate than nurses and teachers. And there's something we can learn from that past history.

We can learn a lot from that past history in terms of revenue mobilization. We can also learn a lot, and this goes to your point about democracy, about the way that strategic taxation on the very rich was deployed as a means to address grotesque inequality. We keep making the historical references in this conversation, but that period, just over 100 years ago, was a period of grotesque inequality. And one of the ways to address that, as president FDR at the time followed by Eisenhower, followed by others, deployed these strategic taxes to ensure a far more level playing field.

I mean, this story of FDR in the wake of World War II, going to Congress and proposing a 100% top margin income tax rate over what would be $1 million dollars today, there's something we can learn from that. I mean, they didn't settle at a 100%. I think they negotiated it and got to 94%m and that top margin income tax rate would average 81% until 1981 in a period, while far from perfect, especially when you look along racial lines, there's so much more that could have been done, but it's also a period in which the middle class grew, in which inequality decreased, in which this country put a man on the moon.

I think we're saying with this report, let's look at evidence, let's look at the examples of other countries, let's be ambitious, let's also look at history and what we can learn from history.

And I think I do remember this point about inequality and its correlation with anti-democratic forces, with the rise of really quite fascist ideas that you see in different parts of the world. I think it's something that we need to focus on. And I'm always reminded of how Louis Brandeis, a long while ago, that we could either have extreme concentration of wealth or we can have democracy, but we can't have both. And I think that's something we need to plaster on the walls around wherever we can, Rob, because we have to make these connections today.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah. I think I mentioned Jane Jacob's book. It was called Dark Age Ahead. And while one can always be selective in what we choose from the library, she sought a lot of these ominous dimensions gathering energy, and it was the last book in her life.

I also wanted to bring in, because of what Max said, your focus being on the Global South, we have a, what I'll call, problem that affects everyone, which we'll call global warming or climate change. And we don't, as according to people like Al Gore and others recently, we don't have multilateral institutions that are treating us all like humankind, meaning deploying resources that come from the pockets of the OECD countries to help the African continent and Southern Asia transform their energy systems. And there's also a lot of concern in the capital markets that there is no trust that well-intentioned money allocated to the Global South will not be refracted, say, into a Geneva bank account by corrupt process in that realm.

So I guess I'm saying that there are some concerns within the northern countries. I know Adam Curtis has been talking about this a great deal at the BBC in recent years, but the concerns between north and south and the concerns for the common good when you have globalization, when the nation state is withered, seems like it's affecting everything in what I'll call a way that a free trade theorist would've said, "We can make everyone better off and nobody worse off," has implicit within it, transfers. We're not seeing those transfers and we're not seeing our institutions embracing the common good. And the common good isn't just charity to the Global South. What the Global South does in environment affects the children of Philadelphia or Zurich or wherever.

So how do we evolve, not just what you might call the plutocracy, but how do we create channels for the global common good in this chaotic context?

Max Lawson:

I think it's not easy, I think is the first thing to say. I think there have been some glimmers of hope and progress, and as I said, the deal that was done on corporate tax where you see a minimum tax rate for all corporates was progress. But it is massively skewed towards rich countries in terms of its benefits. But it showed that agreement was possible.

I would say one thing, which is I think a really important point that Piketty has made really well is that what we've seen globally in recent years is a massive transfer of public wealth into private hands. And that's what's happened in rich countries and in developing countries and between them. And so you have a situation where you have very rich countries, but remarkably, by historical standards, poor governments because of the shift of public wealth into private hands.

And a very good example of that was the massive interventions made during COVID-19, which were welcome and really needed and made a big difference to a lot of people, but they also hugely drove up asset prices, had so much more money chasing so much fewer assets, whether it's house prices or the stock market. So you've seen this kind of immense boost to private wealth off the back of a public intervention.

So one of the things we say in the report is we do have these global public goods that are desperate for resources and we do have this explosion in private wealth, which isn't because of billionaires worked harder or they're cleverer or they're more entrepreneurial. It's almost like a systemic byproduct of the interventions made by governments in recent years. Let's claw that money back, let's put it to good use.

And I mean, we know as Oxfam, there are serious and important vehicles for transferring money south that do work. And we work with organizations all over the world to hold their governments to account. When we were both living in Kenya, working with Kenyan allies, scrutinizing the Kenyan government, holding their feet to the fire, that's what we have to do. We have to make sure the money goes to the Global South, but in the Global South, we're empowering citizens to make sure that money is spent effectively.

But there is absolutely no doubt that there is enormous capacity and scope for governments across the Global South to spend the money, whether it's on climate adaptation, whether it's on universal healthcare or getting every girl a secondary education. We know they can absorb that money and it can make a huge difference. So yes, it is about those big transfers, but I think the first transfer has to be from private hands to public hands, and then the second transfer is from governments in the Global North to governments in the Global South.

Nabil Ahmed:

Yeah. Max, you put that so eloquently as ever.

The addition, Rob, I would have as well is we do have transfers taking place right now, as Max has said, from public to private. We also have massive transfers taking place from south to north when we look throughout trade rules, we look at tax, and there has been some progress there. So it's not as if transfers aren't taking place. They are continuing to take place on a colossal scale.

The other piece I would add here, Rob, as well is you rightly point out the climate issue, and climate is an interesting one because we know, and rightly we've understood this, in terms of a rich-poor country issue in terms of the inequality of emissions over time. And that's correct. Something like 92% of historic emissions rest with what we know as rich countries.

But there's actually, perhaps, a more important way of framing the climate issue, which is understanding the insanely disproportionate emissions of the rich the world over, of the very richest, compared to everybody else. Our own data just a few months ago showed that billionaires on average emit a million times more than the average person. And this is a really important frame for us to recognize that whichever country we're looking at in the world, that there is an important prism here to look at through the lens of class, really, and that has to be part of our redress then when we are looking at the climate issue.

Bringing it back to tax as well, Rob, the great thing about strategic taxation on the very richest, we can talk about it in terms of revenue, we can talk about it in terms of investing power back into the great majority. We can also talk about strategic taxation as one of the most important tools we have to redress the climate crisis because we know that emissions are profoundly correlated with wealth. So there's much we can do there.

And Max was actually one of the folks who drove this data as well. It was really interesting to look at the role of the investments of the super rich and how that correlates with our emissions.

Max Lawson:

Yeah. I think there's been some great work on the emissions of luxury consumption, and I think that's probably the most famous, people zipping around in their private jets for 15-minute flights and consuming more carbon than hundreds and hundreds of people in the Global South.

But the main source of carbon emissions for the richest people is the emissions from their investments, and I think it's the sense of that, as the owners of capital. And what we did is we took the 200 richest billionaires in the world and we looked at where they have stocks because all of these corporates now have to, to some extent, report on their carbon emissions. They all underestimate it, but there are at least now a body of reports for all the biggest corporates in the world, or at least a majority of them.

So if Billionaire X has a 20% share in Corporate Y and Corporate Y has emissions of this, then you can put those 20%. In the same way you would with a pension fund or other ways that you'd look at investors, let's look at the carbon footprint of the investments of the richest people on the planet and the additional responsibility that gives them. And we found that compared to the S&P 500 average, a billionaire's investment has twice as much carbon than the average investment for the S&P 500. So the richest people not just have a big carbon footprint for their investments, they tend to invest more in polluting industries.

So yeah, if I did ever get that speech moment at Davos, I'd say, "Look, if you guys want all this power, you want all this responsibility, let's see you use it and your investment power in a way that would make a difference." And the same campaigns we have against universities and pension funds to divest from the most polluting industries, let's have a similar campaign targeting billionaire investments as well because I think so far, we've really let them off the hook.

Rob Johnson:

Well, my friend at the Perry Institute, Robert Poland, we were in northern California a couple of weeks ago, and he said, "In addition to getting people to stop investing, we got to get people to stop consuming fossil fuels." And he recommended that his home, University of Massachusetts, stopped using energy that came from fossil fuels. And he said, "Then whatever the investor does, if they stay with that stuff, they lose money." You knock down the earnings.

Max Lawson:

Definitely. We all need to transition. And I think there's really interesting analysis coming out now because if, as Oxfam, we care about raising the living standards of the majority of humanity, not just ending poverty, but giving everybody a decent life where they don't have to be scared of the bills if they get sick, where their kids get a good education, where they have a solid roof over their heads, and that's going to take resources, that's going to take carbon, it's going to take growth.

And at the moment, all of that carbon instead is being squandered on the richest 1%. We have this tiny amount of carbon left to stay within the limits of our planet and prevent planetary destruction. And we could either do that by condemning most of humanity to destitution and allowing the rest of the carbon to be sucked up by the richest people, or we could distribute it much more fairly and allow, at least the growth we have left in terms of carbon-related growth, to raise living standards for ordinary people.

So the carbon inequality is a complete parallel to wealth because it's just so incredibly inefficient to squander this valuable, valuable space we have to grow within the planetary boundaries that we have and give that all to another private jet or these yachts. I mean, the emissions of yachts, I had no idea, but diesel fuel that they use in these yachts is just off the charts. Some great empirical data done by, I think, the University of maybe Massachusetts, I can't remember where they looked at billionaire emissions. And as soon as they get a yacht, then forget about it. It's like 8,000, 9,000 times higher than you or I.

So yeah, we need less yachts, more decent lives for ordinary people.

Rob Johnson:

Well, I'm a doctor's son, so I always say, first you got to have diagnosis, and I believe your report is an outstanding diagnosis. You can't prescribe remedies until you diagnose things. But I am often concerned now at what you might call the diagnosis foments despair. How do you fill the void, not deepen the void?

But I think you two have a tremendously constructive vision of what to do. How to do it is still making us all scratch our heads. But when I listen to you talk, I often think of the song by Gerry Rafferty, "Wise as a serpent, harmless as a dove." Keep illuminating the path forward, keep seeing where to go, how to go, and what must be done. And you are really at the vanguard of that.

And my own wish, perhaps through this podcast, but through your reports, through your being on what we might call the front porch of Davos, is that this alarm will continue to awaken people to the need for profound transformation. And I don't know. I have four children and three grandchildren. The stakes feel pretty high. And it's not just about offshore tax avoidance. It has to do with the context in which their lives will be lived after our generation has departed.

We could come back, do a part two. I know we're short on time today. I'm curious what your final thoughts are here in the last two, three minutes, and then I'm sure there'll be another chapter shortly.

Nabil Ahmed:

Yeah. Rob, we learn so much from you and from the work that you folks do at INET, and these are frightening times, aren't they? You look at this extreme concentration of wealth and there's almost a feeling like, "Oh, there's another story about the rich getting richer," but take a step back, put this into historical context, and it is profoundly very alarming.

But at the same time, there is a part of me that says, "Let's keep fighting, let's keep pushing." You look at the kind of debates that we are having now compared to even just a decade ago, Rob. I woke up this morning to read a headline in the FT about President Biden pushing for a billionaire tax from his State of the Union Address. And I had to just check that I was definitely awake because that's a indication of the kind of ambition that we need. That's one part of it. We need a whole lot more.

But I think change comes from the data, change comes from the advocacy that we do, but it also comes from moments like this, Rob, to be able to educate one another, to be able to find common cause and build power with a real mainstream of people. And I think this is an issue that has met its moment, and that's my reflection to you that we need to keep pushing as we've always have done and that progress will result from it. I do believe that. Max?

Max Lawson:

Yeah. I mean, I would add that I think one thing we learned looking at the tax issue is that greater taxation of the rich was almost always forged at times of war and crisis, and COVID was a squandered crisis in that regard. You know what I mean? But we are now moving straight into an energy crisis, a polycrisis if you like, and I'm reasonably hopeful.

If we look at these new progressive governments in Latin America, we look at wealth taxes have just been put up in Spain, in Norway. It's not a tide of countries. There are still many governments that are refusing to do this, but it does feel to me that this is more on the agenda than it has been for a long time. And the sense of the need for solidarity, the political salience, if you like. If I look at my Twitter feed around the insane profits of Shell first and now BP, and yet we've got a situation here in the UK that if you don't pay your energy bills and you're poor, these companies are allowed to kick your door in, to take your property, to pay your bills.

So people are really, really angry, Rob, and in a good way because they're angry about the insane injustice they can see. So I see hope in that. I see hope in the need to increase taxation on the richest. And to have the political space to do that seems to me, to my mind, more open than it has been since Occupy. And I really hope that that proves to be the case over the next couple of years and we do see the kind of change that we desperately need.

Rob Johnson:

Well, I want to thank you guys for being what you might call the light of the way forward. People can be despairing but not know what to do. And by following your work, these reports, what is it, nine of them now as you mentioned, but focusing on that work and seeing how you illuminate the path forward is very good.

So I guess I'll end with the recommendation of another song, "Keep on Pushing" by Curtis Mayfield. I know you will. Thank you guys.

Max Lawson:

Thank you, Rob.

Nabil Ahmed:

Thank you, Rob.

Rob Johnson:

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