Public Finance and Public Choice: Two Contrasting Visions of the State

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Overview

In this volume, based on a week-long symposium at the University of
Munich's Center for Economic Studies, two leading scholars of governmental economics debate their divergent perspectives on the role of government and its fiscal functions.James M. Buchanan, who was influential in developing the research program in public choice, concentrates on the imperfections of the political process and stresses the need for rules to restrain governmental interference. Richard A.
Musgrave, a founder of modern public finance, points to market failures and inequities that call for corrective public policies. They apply their differing economic and political philosophies to a variety of key issues. Each presentation is followed by a response and general discussion.

The MIT Press

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Editorial Reviews

The Economist
This fascinating book is the result of Buchanan and Musgrave's discussions. Simply presented as a series of lectures, replies and discussions, this book shows powerfully how these two outstanding economists explain and defend their very different views of the state.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780262024624
  • Publisher: MIT Press
  • Publication date: 10/22/1999
  • Series: CESifo Seminar Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 282
  • Product dimensions: 5.70 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Read an Excerpt




Chapter One

1.2 Origins, Experiences, and Ideas: A Retrospective Assessment

James M. Buchanan


I Introduction


I recall a line from Tennyson's poem, Ulysses: "I am a part of all that I have met." The emphasis can be reversed by stating "All that I have met is a part of me." Each one of us exists within a set of parameters (the parameters of existence), which locate us in four-dimensional space-time. But each of us brings to this state-of-being, this here and now, a unique history that is unalterable by the fact that it has happened. This history shapes our perceptions and our cognition of that which we observe, interpret, and evaluate.

    Each person, as a separately existent unit of consciousness, looks at, hears, feels, and tastes that which is confronted through a "different window," to use Nietzsche's wonderful metaphor. Each person "constructs" reality from the elements at hand and somehow integrates the natural and artifactual parameters of existence into an interpretation and understanding that defines human being. Acceptance of this proposition does not, however, imply that reality itself exists only as constructed separately by persons; we need not embrace extreme solipsism. Again, Nietzsche's metaphor rescues us. We do look at the world through differing windows, but we are, after all, looking at the same world. Reality is not wholly imaginary; we do indeed stub our toe when we kick a rock.

    Social reality is not basically different from physical reality in its existence independent of human imagination. But the ultimate object ofobservation in social reality is human behavior, and the presumption of volition on the part of actors creates a potential for differences in interpretation and understanding that is absent from any inquiry into harder stuff. The brick that topples from the wall could not have chosen not to fall. Observers (scientists) can readily reach shared understandings as to why that event occurred, even if separate observers might have seen the event from a different perspective. Compare the brick with the person who is observed to take the left rather than the right fork in the road as traveled. Explanation—understanding of the action that is observed—becomes difficult because of the presumption that choice was possible; the actor was not hard-wired, as if genetically, to take that action that was observed to be taken.

    The social philosophers-scientists of the eighteenth century advanced our understanding at this point by their discovery that general uniformities in human nature do exist that allow falsifiable predictions to be made concerning the patterns of behavioral responses to changes in constraints, even if each single actor is presumed able to choose voluntarily among the options that are confronted. From this basic discovery, the science of economics emerged, articulated in Adam Smith's great treatise, The Wealth of Nations (1776).

    The explanatory limits of this science must, however, be recognized. Consider the central hypothesis: As the relative price of a marketed good falls, a larger quantity will be voluntarily purchased. Note precisely what is being claimed by this hypothesis. There is no implication that each and every prospective purchaser must increase the quantity purchased. Each person remains free to choose. The hypothesis of demand states only that, for the whole set of prospective purchasers, a larger quantity will be taken than before the relative price reduction. Further, and by the same logic, there is nothing in the law of demand that allows any prediction as to how much the increase in quantity will be. (There is no uniformity in elasticities implied by the law of demand.)

    I shall not go further into methodological detail. The discussion should be sufficient to suggest that different observers, each one of whom fully operates within the basic research program of economic science, may differ widely in their ultimate understanding and interpretation of the social reality that the political economy reflects. Each observer may meet all standards for qualification as an economic scientist, yet each may retain a uniquely personal understanding-interpretation of the phenomena under inquiry, as determined in part by historical experience.

    The problem of attaining scientific consensus among those who consider socioeconomic-political reality is further exacerbated by the relative importance in extending the inquiry into "other worlds" than that which is known to be existent. For the physical scientist, the overwhelming proportion of the task lies in explaining the reality as it is, with very little attention paid to alternative structures. For the social scientist, by contrast, because of the underlying presupposition that social reality is itself artifactual rather than natural, the motivating force behind much effort lies in the prospect that this reality may be reconstructed or reformed so as to make for a "better" world. Accordingly, more analysis must be placed on examination of that which might be as opposed to that which is, with the necessary implication that differences in interpretation are wider in the first than in the second of these stages of inquiry.

    I have gone through this preliminary discussion, which we might call notes on the philosophy of science, in order to explain why Professor Musgrave and I, in our planning session for this symposium, chose to commence with separate lectures in which each of us will identify formative influences that have affected our separate visions or perspectives on the political economy of the modern society. My point of emphasis here is that both of us remain practicing economist scientists, in the proper meaning of this term, despite the fact that our visions of socioeconomic-political reality remain substantially different. Also, and this is important, I note that neither of us approaches the subject matter ideologically, in the ordinary meaning of this term. Neither of us starts from some preconceived political-philosophical stance, and neither of us has been associated closely with this or that political party, movement, or cult.

    Why, then, do our separate visions differ? To offer a partial answer, we propose, in these introductory lectures, to isolate and to identify what we now think to have been determining factors, involving origins, persons, experiences, and ideas, each as now assigned our own retrospective weighting.


II Origins


I shall not go into autobiographical detail (for extended discussion see my set of autobiographical essays, Better Than Plowing, 1992). However, some narrative is necessary to identify the early influences that now seem to me to have been important in shaping my ultimate vision.

    By heritage, I am Scots-Irish. All of my known ancestors were progeny of the mid-eighteenth-century wave of American immigrants from Northern Ireland, who were themselves transplanted from Scotland a century earlier. Much of the whole southeastern United States was initially settled by these hardy Scots-Irish, who were solidly Presbyterian and fiercely independent.

    I was born and reared in the upper South of the country, in middle Tennessee, a region that was Confederate in loyalties during the great Civil War of the 1860s, but which had never been a plantation society, as such. That war itself cannot be overlooked as a formative influence. In a genuine sense, I grew up as a member of a defeated people in a war that was still remembered by my grandparents. From this fact of history alone, any strongly held pronationalist sentiment, if translated into unquestioning loyalty or fealty to federal or central government authority, would have been near-treachery. At the very least, there could have been, for me, no sense of membership in a genuine national community. Hegelian actualization in the United States would have remained beyond my consciousness, regardless of the career path chosen.

    Apart from the generalized Southern attitude toward the authority of the central nation-state, my own family's history was important. My paternal grandfather was elected governor of Tennessee, the highest elected state office, in the populist uprising of the early 1890s. The populists defined themselves through their opposition to the Eastern establishment, the robber barons and financial tycoons, who were also alleged to control national politics. Much of my early reading was found, literally, in pile upon pile of pamphlet literature of the 1890s. It is no surprise to me that I have always been sympathetic to the emotional appeal exerted by those who advance grand conspiracy theories. This set of attitudes was reinforced by personal experience in military training for World War II during which I personally felt myself a victim of anti-southern discrimination.


III From the Academy


Only after World War II did I become an academic economist in any meaningful sense. And I entered graduate school at the University of Chicago in January 1946 as a committed "libertarian socialist." (These terms may seem contradictory, although there was a political party in Weimar Germany that used this label.) I was libertarian in my conviction that politicized restrictions on individual liberties should be minimized. But I was socialist in my judgment that only political action could break up and control the power concentrations that directed economic life.

    In retrospect, I now realize that, quite simply, I remained illiterate in my understanding of the coordinating properties of markets. It is not at all surprising, therefore, that I was intellectually receptive to such an understanding, once it was offered to me by an articulate spokesman, a role filled for me by Professor Frank Knight, who quickly became my role model. It is because Knight himself was not an ideologue—indeed, he had written one of the most penetrating criticisms of capitalist economic organization (Knight 1935)—that his teaching proved so persuasive to me. And again, it is not at all surprising, when viewed in retrospect, that, once I fully understood the principle of spontaneous coordination effected through the workings of markets, the libertarian socialist should become the libertarian advocate of laissez-faire within limits. (I entitled the chapter in my autobiographical essays relating these experiences "Born Again Economist.")

    One characteristic feature of graduate training in Chicago, then as well as now, warrants mentions here. The Chicago economist does not project an image of becoming an adviser to governments, thereby proffering advice on how to manage national economies, in the large or in the small. The Chicago economist learns how economies work rather than how economies might be controlled. Of course, this generalization has its notable exceptions, but the contrast in professional attitudes in this respect between Chicago and, say, Harvard, may be critical in influencing both career and research paths.


IV Public Finance, Politics, and Knut Wicksell


My specialization within economies was, by prior interest, public finance, and my acquired understanding of and appreciation for the functioning of markets offered little or no assistance toward any understanding of the workings of the public economy. Very early in my graduate study, I was struck by the naivete of the textbook commonplaces about political reality, at least as evidenced in the English-language versions. It seemed self-evident to me that some model of politics is necessary before any analysis, positive or normative, of taxing and public spending could proceed. At about this time, I discovered the English translation of de Viti de Marco's First Principles of Public Finance (de Viti 1936), which stimulated my interest in looking further into the Italian sources. One of my first papers, which I called "The Pure Theory of Public Finance" (Buchanan 1949), was nothing more than a plea to my fellow economists to be more explicit about their political presuppositions.

    These early attitudes reflected my unwillingness to acquiesce in the conventional presumption that the state, or collectivity, was everywhere benevolent, or, at least, that it may be presumed to be so for the purpose of analytical exercise. Note that, in this early inquiry, I was never attracted by the quasi-anarchist libertarian stance that rejects the potential efficacy of any and all collective action. I accepted the necessary politicization of the framework within which the market economy must operate, and I also recognized the potential efficiency in collective provision and financing of commonly shared goods and services. But how is it possible for persons to organize themselves collectively or politically so as to secure the genuine benefits from collective action without, at the same time, leaving open the prospects for exploitation?

    It was precisely in confrontation with this age-old question in political philosophy that my personal discovery of Knut Wicksell's Finanztheoretische Untersuchungen (Wicksell 1896) was so important. Wicksell's efforts seem to match closely with my own, since he seemed to be searching for some practical resolution to the basic question. Wicksell found it necessary to examine the institutional structure through which collective decisions are made, and to pay heed specifically to the rules. He recognized explicitly that only by changes in rules could changes in patterns of outcomes be predicted to emerge. In passing, Wicksell sharply criticized his fellow economists for their unchallenged presumption that government is best modeled as a benevolent despot, simply waiting for the economists' advice. Wicksell's dissertation was indeed music to my mind, and surely he deserves pride of place among the several influences that have shaped my basic ideas on the political economy.


V Arrow's Impossibility Theorem and Italian Realism


I have now described where my ideas were, more or less, at mid-century. But early in the 1950s these ideas were reinforced by my reactions to the academic discussions aroused by Kenneth Arrow's 1951 book, Social Choice and Individual Values. Both Arrow himself and his many critics seemed disturbed by the implications of his impossibility theorem. They seemed, somehow, to place positive value on the existence of some internally consistent and coherent "public interest" or "social welfare," quite independent of any relationship to the preferences of individuals who are members of the community. My 1954 criticism (Buchanan 1954) of the whole discussion called into question the meaningfulness of any such construction as a "social welfare function," and it specifically contrasted the emergent properties of markets with those reflected in explicit collective choices, as made within defined rules.

    In my early forays into analyses of collective action, however, my attitudes retained residues of a romantic vision of both politics and politicians. Despite the intellectual stimulation offered by Wicksell's insights, I remained stubbornly defensive of the political institutions of "democracy," without any real willingness to subject such institutions to analytical challenge. The Italian year (1955-1956) was a necessary element in finally sweeping away the romantic cobwebs about democratic processes. I mentioned earlier that my initial interest in the Italian scholars was provoked by their general recognition of the necessary relationship between the public economy and political structure. I spent the full academic year exploring the classic Italian works in "scienze della finanze," with special attention to the modeling of politics. I came away with a healthy dose of Italian realism about politicians, politics, and bureaucracy. The whole Italian culture incorporates attitudes toward governance that could, indeed, "shock" the American sensibilities, as formed before mid-century.


VI The Calculus of Consent


Frank Knight's emphasis on the structural features of economic order (Knight 1933), Knut Wicksell's demonstration that collective decision rules can be adjusted to yield generally preferred outcomes without exploitation along with his criticism of economists' implicit models of governments, the realistic inquiry of the Italians into the motivations of politicians—these elements mixed with my own libertarian sympathies, my rejection of economists' romantic blinders about politics, including my reaction to the discussion surrounding Arrow's theorem—combined to create, for me, a setting for research and inquiry that was ripe for further development. But a catalyst was needed, and this was provided by a prospective coauthor, Gordon Tullock, who brought to the enterprise a hard-nosed emphasis on the predictive and explanatory power of Homo economicus models in politics and bureaucracy. This emphasis was evoked by Tullock's years in the foreign service. Having been influenced by the economics of Henry Simons and Ludwig von Mises, as supplemented by the precursory public choice insights of Joseph Schumpeter and Anthony Downs, Tullock was critical for me both as a means of bolstering my confidence in mounting a challenge to much of the conventional wisdom in political science and as a source of genuinely creative and original ideas, due, in some part at least, to the fact that he had never been personally exposed to the little orthodoxies of mid-century social sciences.

    We launched the project that became The Calculus of Consent (Buchanan and Tullock 1962) without any internal anticipation that we were writing a book that might ultimately be judged seminal. We were, much more simply understood, using the tools and methods of the economic analysis and concepts available at the time in application to the constitutional organization of a polity. And, in so doing we were effectively, translating some of the philosophical ideas of James Madison and the other founding fathers, ideas that had, been embedded in the American documents. We thought of our effort as aimed at providing at least an analytical framework within which the operation of United States politics, both as observed and imagined, might be modeled and, finally, understood, a necessary step before constructive reform might be attempted. By the nature of the enterprise, our analysis was reductionist and general, but we made no effort to conceal the essential American provinciality of any application.

    In a comprehensive overview, The Calculus of Consent may be interpreted as an intellectual attack on majoritarianism and majority rule, since we removed these institutions from the sacrosanct status implicitly assigned to them in much of the prevailing orthodoxy. By inference, therefore, our book might have been taken to be a criticism of parliamentary systems of governance, which elevate majority rule to dominance, along with a defense of republican systems in which majorities are constrained. More specifically, the normative thrust of our inquiry offered support for constitutional limits on the exercise of political authority.


VII The 1960s, Anarchy, and Leviathan


Viewed from the end-of-century perspective, The Calculus of Consent was analytically optimistic in the sense that the argument laid out a structural basis both for understanding the American sociopolitical order and for prospects of making this order work more effectively. But it is now also important to recognize that The Calculus of Consent was completed before the 1960s happened. And, as that tumultuous decade played itself out, my own attitudes toward both the vulnerability and viability of the American socio-economic-political order were dramatically modified. We could not have written The Calculus of Consent in 1972, a decade after its initial date of publication.

    Too much had changed. I personally observed and sensed that the established order was crumbling; the academies of the land allowed decades of steady, if erratic, progress to be swept away almost without resistance. Methods, manners, morals, and standards were cavalierly tossed on the junk heap of history. In politics, governments everywhere, socialist and nonsocialist, overreached themselves and demonstrably failed to deliver what they had promised. In the United States, nonelected members of a judicial elite took on authority that was acknowledged to be legislative.

    My own take on all of this was that we seemed, simultaneously and along separate dimensions, to be plunging into anarchistic chaos and into uncheckable exploitation under the weight of a Leviathan government. Democracy seemed unable to control its own excesses, and any semblance of constitutional understanding seemed to have suddenly disappeared.

    This setting prompted me to shift my attention to more basic questions than those that had occupied my interest as a political economist. Somehow I sensed the need to examine, at least to my own satisfaction, the fundamental issues of political legitimacy. How is politically organized coercion of individuals ever justified? What are the boundaries of collective action? I found myself becoming a political philosopher, in inquiry if not by profession. And out of this emerged, finally, the book The Limits of Liberty (1975a). The subtitle of this book was "Between Anarchy and Leviathan," which is descriptive of my search for some institutional means of achieving and maintaining some appropriate structure of political order in balance—a structure that handles the continuing tension between the opposing pulls, between too little and too much politicization, too little and too much collective intrusion into the liberties of citizens, too small and too large relative sizes of the public economy.

    Having made my best effort to articulate my own understanding of philosophical foundations in The Limits of Liberty, it seemed evident to me that prospects for any reform or improvement must lie in the design and construction of effective constitutional constraints on governance. The apparent failures of democratic regimes to adhere to ordinary principles for fiscal prudence seemed to be the most obvious illustration of irresponsibility. My judgment, then and now, is that this period of fiscal irresponsibility was to be explained by the sometime dominance of Keynesian nostrums, an argument that was spelled out in the book Democracy in Deficit (Buchanan and Wagner 1977), written jointly with Richard Wagner. The normative inference from the argument involved support for a constitutional amendment of budget balance in the United States.

    More comprehensively, there seemed to be a need to analyze the fiscal constitution in toto. To do this, a model of government is required even if, at one level of analysis, it is recognized that government is itself a complex interaction process with no internally coherent choice function. In research initiated jointly with Geoffrey Brennan, we found that a model embodying revenue maximization offered interesting insights. We first formulated and then tried analytically to answer the question: If government, as it actually operates, tends to maximize revenues from any and every source assigned under constitutional authority, how should these sources be limited? Behind an appropriately drawn Rawlsian veil, how much fiscal authority would be constitutionally allowed to be exercised through ordinary politics?

    The analysis of these questions, presented in our book The Power to Tax (Brennan and Buchanan 1980), carried normative implications that tended to challenge much of the conventional wisdom. The revenue-maximizing government offered a specific alternative to the benevolent government presumed in orthodox treatments, with categorically different implications for the structure of tax policy. Our argument was severely criticized by several economists, including Richard Musgrave. Central to the objection was our presumed elevation of the Leviathan or revenue-maximizing model of government to an implied descriptive role.

    Brennan and I considered this objection to be grounded on a misunderstanding of our whole enterprise, which was basically precautionary rather than positive. We were, in this respect, following Max Weber in setting up one of many ideal types of political structure, each one of which may yield its own separate set of insights into the complex politics that may actually be observed. The centrality and seriousness of the criticisms, however, stimulated us to follow up The Power to Tax with a second book, The Reason of Rules (1985), in which we shifted attention away from the fiscal constitution and addressed the whole set of issues summarized in our subtitle "Constitutional Political Economy." I shall discuss many of the issues in my second lecture (Day 3).


VIII The Economics of Ethics


In the period after 1985, my interests have proceeded in two different, but ultimately related, directions, only one of which might seem to fall strictly within the general constitutional analysis. The first of these research programs has long been included in my inclusive portfolio of ideas, a program that involves the intersection between ethics and economics, again perhaps owing to the early influence of Frank Knight. I have argued, over the course of decades, that formal constraints on behavior, as laid down in legal and constitutional structures, can never alone be sufficient to insure viability in social order. An underlying set of ethical norms or standards seems essential, although we recognize that formal and informal constraints become substitutes at some margins of adjustment.

    How can the economic effect of ethical constraints be analyzed? For me, a strong intuitive sense that the presence of a work ethic must exert positive effects on economic well-being could not readily be incorporated in the corpus of orthodox neoclassical economic theory. Puzzlement at this juncture made me call into question my own long-undisturbed acceptance of the neoclassical postulates. Only when I came to realize that the presumption of economy-wide constant returns acts to remove all ethical content from the work-leisure choice margin did I rediscover the increasing-returns strand of inquiry, extending from Adam Smith, through Allyn Young, and Nicolas Kaldor, and into modern theories of trade and endogenous growth, as represented by Paul R. Krugman, Wilfred J. Ethier, Paul M. Romer, Xiao Kai Yang, and others. With my colleague, Yong J. Yoon, I found myself plunged directly into basic economic theory for the first time in decades, and particularly in tracing the implications of generalized increasing returns (Buchanan and Yoon 1994). Only in such an analytical construction can the economic impact of ethical constraints on personal behavior be fully understood. Clearly, generalized increasing returns carries some implications for the evaluation of the relative efficacy of market and collective allocation of resources, but these implications remain as yet unexplored terrain on my research agenda.


IX The Generality Principle in Politics


The second research program that has occupied my energies during the late 1980s and early 1990s is somewhat more consistent with my continuing interests in constitutional limits on political action. As noted earlier, The Calculus of Consent was influenced primarily by Wicksell, and the avenues for constitutional reform that were stressed in that book involved modifying majoritarian processes toward more inclusion, at least for critically important collective actions. Over the three decades after that early book was published, I came increasingly, if reluctantly, to the realization or judgment that majoritarian institutions are so closely related in public attitudes to "democracy" that reform efforts aimed toward more inclusive decision rules would probably fail. In other words, if additional constitutional limits are desired, alternative means must be found that do not seem to undermine majoritarianism.

    This motivation led me to concentrate attention on possible changes in the permissible set of outcomes available for majority choice, an approach that had been presaged in The Power to Tax, with respect to tax institutions in particular. At this point in my inquiry, I returned to Hayek's treatise, The Constitution of Liberty (F. A. Hayek 1960), which offered an eloquent argument to the effect that the rule of law, interpreted as the principle of generality, is a necessary feature of any free society. It was then relatively simple to marry the Hayekian ideas with my own long-held emphases on the need for constitutional limits on ordinary democratic politics. If majorities can be restricted to the enactment of laws, including those that involve taxing and spending, that apply generally—that is, nondiscriminatorily—over all classes and groups in the political community, the worst excesses of modern distributional politics (de Jasay's "churning state" [de Jasay 1985]) might be avoided. The basic analysis here, along with applications, is developed in some detail in a book written jointly with Roger Congleton and titled Politics by Principle, Not Interest: Toward Nondiscriminatory Democracy (Buchanan and Congleton 1998).

    The normative thrust of the argument does indeed depart from my earlier advocacy of Wicksellian reforms aimed at supramajority rules in legislative assemblies. I have not, of course, abandoned the acceptance of the Wicksellian efficiency logic. But a recognition that Wicksellian reforms may be impossible to attain prompts my currently held judgment that the "political efficiency" generated by an operative generality constraint may more than offset any "economic efficiency" gains that might be promised, but never gained, by Wicksellian projections.


X Conclusions


What I have tried to do in this introductory lecture is to offer my own version of an intellectual odyssey over the course of more than a half century. I hope that it makes for a somewhat informed understanding of my own window on the political economy. As we recognize, of course, any view "from the inside looking out" is likely to be quite different from those "from the outside looking in." And even a personalized inside assessment is transient, as my narrative suggests.

    Perhaps I can best end the lecture by combining the metaphors of Nietzsche and Heraclitus. I have traced some of the elements that may have shaped my window on the reality of political economy. But my window tomorrow, in 2000, will not offer the same vision as today, and for both of the familiar reasons. My own perceptions, understandings, and interpretations must change through time. And that which is observed must be ever-changing.

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Table of Contents

Foreword
Hans-Werner Sinn
Day 1
1.1 Introduction
Hans-Werner Sinn
1.2 Origins, Experiences, and Ideas: A Retrospective
Assessment
James M. Buchanan
1.3 The Nature of the Fiscal State: The Roots of
My Thinking
Richard A. Musgrave
1.4 Discussion
Day 2
2.1 Fiscal Tasks
Richard A.Musgrave
2.2 Response
James M.Buchanant
2.3 Discussion
Day 3
3.1 Constraints on Political Action
James M. Buchanan
3.2 Response
Richard A. Musgrave
3.3 Discussion
Day 4
4.1 Fiscal Federalism
Richard A. Musgrave
4.2 Response
James M. Buchanan
4.3 Discussion
Day 5
5.1 Morals, Politics, and Institutional Reform: Diagnosis
and Prescription
James M. Buchanan
5.2 Response
Richard A. Musgrave
5.3 Discussion
5.4 Summary
Hans-Werner Sinn
References
Index
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