Antimonopoly: A Master Narrative for Democracy?

How Biden’s fight against monopoly can guide his party to victory, and empower American to build a truly better future.

By Barry C. Lynn

Tagged antimonopolyAntitrustEconomicspoliticsPopulism

Storytelling is the essence of politics. In stable times, politicians can spend their hours detailing how they plan to put a fatter chicken in every pot. But in hard times, they need to craft narratives to explain why the pot is empty, to restore hope for better days, and to enlist people in a march toward reform. An especially well-fashioned story can create an entirely new sense of community and possibility. 

Today’s Democrats have many policies that would make people better off. And I’m not talking only about all the admirable ideas that glitter in the wreckage of the first reconciliation bill. The Biden White House especially has introduced smart answers to the challenges of the day, from the seizing up of supply chains to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. What Democrats lack is a common story. And in these very dangerous times, that’s a big problem. Because absent a narrative able to explain and direct how people respond to the many grave crises we face, Democrats condemn themselves to playing supporting characters in other people’s dramas. 

Sometimes it’s Donald Trump’s Big Steal. Sometimes the Republican Party’s medieval war on personal liberty. Sometimes Larry Summers’s fables about inflation. Sometimes just the headlines of the day. Worse, the fact that Democrats are so often on the wrong end of the marionette’s strings only reinforces the sense of hopelessness and confusion in our ranks and of chaos in the world around us.

There is a way out. And it’s one that does not require the rise of a once-in-a-century orator to lead us. It is simply to take to its logical conclusion what Democrats started in July of 2021 when President Biden revolutionized how we see and address concentrated economic power, in his Executive Order on Competition.

The fight against monopoly—or rather, for democracy, prosperity, equality, and true liberty—provides us with exactly the narrative we seek. It explains most of the many crises we face today and shows us how to fix them. It provides us with the simplest of moral crimes, of selfish people looting and breaking the foundations of a good economy and a good society. It engages everyone in the task of rebuilding. It provides a plot that leads not merely to a victory over deviltry, but to the redemption of the original promise of America.

The story of our fight against monopoly control and exploitation is also politically smart. It disrupts the narratives of the Republicans and of the monopolists themselves, resolves many of the tensions between the different wings of the Democratic Party, and reinforces the widening fights against voter suppression, fundamentalism, and the radical decrees of America’s new Court of the Inquisition on Capitol Hill. It’s a story we can tell in language that deeply moves most Americans. A story that transports us from a defensive stance of fighting to protect specific “rights” to an offensive posture of building a new liberty for all Americans and a far better world in which to live.

Most important, it’s a story that demands that we relearn how to dream, then empowers us to make our dreams come true.

The Many Crises of Monopoly

Our first task is simply to catalog the many effects of the crisis of monopoly in America today, so we fully understand how all these problems grow from the same root. The simple fact is that almost every major problem that threatens us today was created by or made worse by monopolists.

Consider just some of the effects of the radical concentration of economic power and control in America over the last few decades.

The subversion of democracy. Monopoly threatens democracy in many ways, but two stand out. First, the concentration of wealth and control in ever fewer hands, by its very nature, undermines fundamental balances of power. Second, and most pressing, Google and Facebook have exploited their control over online communications and debate to misinform and enrage citizens for profit, while simultaneously choking off responsible news media by stealing their advertising revenue and threatening their very survival. 

Concentration of control in the hands of wealthy white men. Long before Donald Trump and Fox News transformed the traditional Republican dog whistle into an air raid siren of white fright, or the Supreme Court had overturned Roe or began to target Lawrence v. Texas, white men were using corporate roll up strategies and massive hedge funds to strip people of color and non-male members of our society of their ability to build independent businesses, and to further concentrate real control over the economy in their own hands.

Spiking costs for basic goods. Monopoly is not the only cause of inflation; the soaring price of gasoline and natural gas is due mainly to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and only partly to chokepoints in production and distribution. But it is concentration of everything from the capacity to manufacture semiconductors to the capacity to transport shipping containers that has driven most of the cascading structural inflation we see.

Plummeting real wages. The 40-year war on unionization has obviously sapped the ability of working people to win higher pay and better treatment. But the dramatic increase in corporate power over the markets in which workers sell their labor has also had a huge effect. Over the last generation, this concentration of “monopsony power,” or “buyer power” by super large employers like Amazon, Walmart, and Uber, has enabled America’s capitalists to hammer wages down by 20 percent or more in most sectors of the economy. And this monopsony power increasingly affects Americans with advanced degrees.

Soaring rents. Yes, selfish zoning has restricted construction in some cities, and the easy money policies of the Federal Reserve have inflated valuations. But it’s the concentration of developers, contractors, and producers of building materials that has made it far harder to build new homes across America. And it’s the concentration of ownership over existing homes by Blackstone and other massively capitalized hedge funds that makes it so hard to keep those homes we already have.

Declining health care quality. Monopolists restrict the supply and drive up the prices of drugs, medical devices, and hospital beds. They cut the number of hospitals and clinics in rural areas and big cities, and force people to travel farther for basic care. They use their power to undermine government programs that actually work, such as the Affordable Care Act, Medicare, and the Veterans Affairs hospital system. In short, monopolists hurt and even kill people for money.

Depression and addiction. There are many reasons to be hopeless and angry today. But there is now ample evidence that the business models of some monopolists play a large and growing role in making our children sad and even suicidal. This is certainly true of Facebook, which designs its platforms and uses its power in ways that destroy self-confidence and reinforce an overall sense of doom. Then there are the mere workaday monopolists who push opioids, liquor, sugar, video games, online gambling, and guns on people who are just trying to get through the night. 

Deadly shortages of vital goods. There are certain minerals that are in naturally short supply on this planet—tantalum, tungsten, thulium. But there is no natural restrictions whatsoever on the number of factories we can build to supply us with baby formula, N-95 facemasks, semiconductors, polysilicon, and fertilizer. Yet over the last two years we have suffered severe—and in some instances deadly—shortages of all these goods. The reason? Concentration of capacity by monopolists, often to the point where but a single factory remains, on the other side of the world.

Dangerous dependence on foreign nations. Americans fought two wars—in 1776 and in 1812—to break free from dependence on the British trading system. Yet today the United States is often 100 percent dependent on manufacturing capacity concentrated within the borders of China, Taiwan, and elsewhere, including for such vital goods as drugs, electronics, and farm chemicals. Just as was true two centuries ago, this dependence opens America to forms of political coercion—of individual people, individual corporations, and the nation as a whole—that threaten our security and full independence.

Unstable industrial systems. This same concentration by monopolists of vital industrial capacity in single locations also creates an existential and fast-worsening threat of cascading industrial and financial crashes. The destruction by monopolists of all industrial redundancy, hence all resiliency, means that the loss of access to the supply of a single vital component could trigger a catastrophic shutdown of even the most essential systems.

Faster climate change. For 30 years, U.S. policy on climate change has focused foremost on developing new technologies and subsidizing their use. And there have been a few big successes, such as the jumpstarting of Tesla. But in most sectors, almost as fast as scientists and engineers develop cleaner technologies, monopolists exploit their corporate and political power to block the introduction of those technologies, such as when big utilities stop homeowners from mounting solar panels on their roofs. And as we are witnessing following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, monopolists are also highly adept at exploiting crises to bolster their hold over both energy politics and energy systems.

It’s a long list, and at first glance it may be hard to see how all these crises—political, economic, structural—fit together. But the basic equation is simple. Monopolists create chokepoints over commerce and communications in order to raise prices and to control economic and even political outcomes. In creating these chokepoints, they also concentrate capacity and hence risk.

Even the overthrow of abortion rights can be added to this list. After all, the Republican success in overturning Roe v. Wade was paid for largely by the profits of monopolists ranging from Koch Industries to Google, who have long provided the main corporate support for the Federalist Society and the other groups that supported the fundamentalist takeover of the Supreme Court. It’s not that the people who run these corporations necessarily want to see abortion and other personal rights overturned. It’s that thanks to the nine-person chokepoint of the Supreme Court it’s easy to ensure that the justices chosen to protect corporate monopoly will also oppose abortion. 

Economics Is About Power

Our second task in sketching out a master narrative that explains today’s crises is to rebuild our understanding that economics is about power and politics, not math. And further, that the now-generalized belief that math explains political economics is a core component of someone else’s story, one designed 40 years ago precisely to block our ability to see and understand concentrations of power and control.

One way to start is to compare the main principles and rules of competition policy just before and after the election of Ronald Reagan.

From 1776 to 1980, Americans approached the governance of competition through an entirely political lens. They believed competition among people within society is inevitable, hence viewed political economics as the art of governing how people compete with, and exercise power over, one another. Put another way, they saw antimonopoly law as a way to extend the Constitution’s system of checks and balances into the political economy. 

Practically, this meant intentionally structuring corporations and markets to promote the liberty and wellbeing of the individual, the ability of citizens to make wise decisions, and the security and prosperity of individuals and of the nation. The most immediate goal of antimonopoly law was to prevent any concentration of power or control that might restrict the liberty of individuals to make full use of all their properties—in the form of their ideas, skills, labor, personal businesses, personal capital, and capacity to reason.

Americans did so through the simplest of means. They established bright line rules to govern the number of competitors in any one market. That’s why, during America’s first two centuries, competition policy required only the simplest forms of math. One long-time rule—first codified under Franklin Roosevelt—held that no industrial corporation should control more than 25 percent of the national market for any specific industrial good. Another—the origins of which we can trace back more than a century—held that no retailer control more than 5 percent of any local market. Another—established in 1789 by America’s first Congress—aimed to break America’s farmland into parcels of no more than 160 acres.

In cases where a business could not be easily or reasonably divided into small pieces—such as railroads and telephone networks—Americans established bright line rules to govern the actions and behaviors of the large corporations that controlled these systems. Most importantly, they required these corporations to treat every seller and buyer the same, or in the parlance of the day, to not “discriminate” between one customer and the next.

Americans never viewed antimonopoly as mere policy. Rather, it was more an all-encompassing framework for seeing and shaping power in every corner of our democratic republic. To this end, Americans distributed antimonopoly authority through all levels of government, and used the town hall and state legislature, along with almost every department of the federal government, as tools to achieve the peoples’ goals within our political economy.

The system was never perfect. From time to time, industrialists and bankers such as John D. Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan did manage to concentrate great power, especially in the late nineteenth century. But this overarching approach to governing power proved a dramatic success. In 1980, a full two centuries after the founding, power within the United States was still distributed largely as it was in the early days of the republic, with most businesses, banks, and farms still owned by individual families. At the same time, America’s communications and transportation networks were the envy of the world, and American manufacturers led the world in innovation and mass production, ensuring the prosperity and security of the nation.

When Reagan took office, he brought with him both extreme new pro-monopoly policies, and scholars who preached a radically new pro-monopoly philosophy about how human society works.

At the general level, the new thinking was best expressed by Richard Posner, a Stanford law professor who went on to a career as a federal judge, in a 1973 book titled Economic Analysis of Law. As Posner later explained, his immediate aim in this work was to make the case that law itself had “been shaped by economic forces” and, further, that “the logic of the law might be economics.” His ultimate aim? To lead judges to “use efficiency to guide decision.”

It was the Yale law professor Robert Bork who took up the task of working out the legal mechanisms to achieve these ends. He did so in his 1978 book The Antitrust Paradox, which served as a blueprint for the Reagan Administration’s remaking of antimonopoly law. To transform a legal system designed to distribute or neutralize power into one that promotes monopolization of capacity and control, Bork proposed two changes.

First was a new purpose for antimonopoly law. In his book, Bork claimed to have discovered that the efforts to use antimonopoly law to protect liberty and democracy was an incorrect reading of history, and that the sole original goal of federal antimonopoly law had been to promote the “welfare” of the “consumer.” The best way to do so, Bork added, was to promote “productive efficiency” within the economy, and the best way to achieve “productive efficiency” was through the elimination of all structural limits on concentration of capacity and control.

Bork’s second change was religious in nature. Taking to its logical conclusion Posner’s idea that American law had been shaped by “economic forces,” Bork insisted that rather than view antimonopoly law through the lens of politics, we must instead view it as a form of “science.” This in turn required us to bring economic “scientists” into the courtroom, to interpret the relative efficiencies of different economic structures and other economic phenomena. 

Guided by Bork’s writings, Reagan officials in the 1980s reinterpreted America’s vast body of antimonopoly law along entirely new lines. In place of the bright line rules that had guided enforcement since the founding, they adopted a system that required officials to “measure” the relative efficiency of different corporate structures and behaviors. In place of reasoned debates over how to regulate economic power to achieve goals established by the authors of the Constitution and by Congress, they erected the economist—armed with all-encompassing mathematical models—as the prime judge of the actions of the corporation, bank, capitalist, and landlord.

And rather than attempt to write this new philosophy into every one of the hundreds of laws Americans had erected to protect themselves against concentrated power, the Reagan officials simply rewrote the “guidelines” that law enforcers and courts rely on to interpret the original purpose of  almost every antimonopoly law. 

A more radical restatement of the aims and means of the American Revolution—and of the moral foundations of the American system of justice—is hard to imagine. Practically, the new approach shifted antimonopoly law away from the protection of the individual’s properties to the protection of the capitalist’s right to buy out or bankrupt whomever he might choose to target. Intellectually, the new approach imposed nothing less than a new teleology about how society works, a new metaphysics purposefully designed to hide the political purposes and outcomes of different economic structures

This was no mere partisan project. The Reagan Administration’s radical restructuring of American democracy was immediately embraced by many left-wing Democrats, led by the economists John Kenneth Galbraith and Lester Thurow. Then in the 1990s, Bill Clinton carried this radical new philosophy of efficiency into how the federal government regulates trade, banking, energy, finance, the defense industry, and many other sectors. Clinton did so largely under the sway of the economist Larry Summers, perhaps the most avid defender of monopoly power in today’s Democratic Party.

In the real world, the effects were revolutionary. The ideas and policies of Posner, Bork, and Summers unleashed extreme consolidation of power in just about every corner of the U.S. economy and provided the regulatory foundation for the rise of Google, Amazon, Facebook, and other “platform monopolists.” Worse, these ideas succeeded in blinding us to the political risks created by this consolidation of power and the physical risks created by the concentration of capacity.

The idea that our understanding of the political economy has been profoundly constrained by an intellectual framework someone else built, with the specific intention of exploiting us and then blinding us to the exploitation, is profoundly disturbing. To the extent there is any consolation, it is to remember this was not the first concerted effort to alter how Americans view the workings of the world.

In 1935, W.E.B. Du Bois, in describing the success of white historians in both the South and the North in erasing the many great political achievements of Black Americans during Reconstruction, wrote, “With sufficient general agreement and determination among the dominant classes, the truth of history may be utterly distorted and contradicted and changed to any convenient fairy tale that the masters of men wish.”

A Way to Reclaim Our Future

To be most fully effective, stories must not only explain the past and provide a guide to addressing the crises of today; they must also plot a path to a brighter tomorrow. That’s why our third task is to relearn how to imagine a better future.

This won’t be easy. Democrats like to view themselves as the party of progress. But in giving up the tool of competition policy, they long ago lost not merely the practical ability to build a better world but the capacity to fully conceive what such a world might look like.

Here again, a fuller sense of the American antimonopoly tradition will help. What this history teaches is that smart competition policy based on proven models can empower us to retake control over our own destiny, beginning now. There are many ways this is true, but three stand out.

First and most obviously, competition is what drives innovation. Today in America we can identify dozens of industries where monopolists are slowing, stopping, or even reversing technological advances that would cut carbon emissions, cut the prices of basic goods, or cut the abuse of workers. The source of this problem is easy to see. Absent any competitive push to make such investments, monopolists will choose simply to charge more for access to the industrial systems—and technologies—they already own.

From the earliest days, American antimonopoly policy was designed to always create an incentive to share and develop better ideas. We see this in the Patent and Copyright Clause of the Constitution, designed to protect the individual inventor from capture by the capitalist. We see this during and after the Civil War, in the federal government’s efforts to standardize railway gauges and to impose common carrier rules on the transportation and telegraph networks in ways that would open these technologies to all comers. We see this in the heart of the twentieth century in the use of antitrust to force dominant corporations to license tens of thousands of technologies for free—in a process that seeded many revolutionary ideas, including the semiconductor. We see it in the history of the Internet, where the antitrust case against IBM helped beget Microsoft, then the case against Microsoft helped beget Google.

Today there is no shortage of new technologies that would transform energy, communications, computing, transportation, manufacturing, and housing in ways that would result in cleaner, safer, and cheaper products and services. The only shortage Americans face today is of opportunities to integrate these technologies into the systems the monopolists control.

The second lesson we can learn from America’s traditional approach to competition is that there is nothing in human society over which we cannot exert mastery. 

Here again we can trace the solution to the founding. The act of separating religion from politics strongly reinforced the belief that it was up to each individual not merely to protect our common liberty but to help make the world right. As the historian Gordon Wood has put it, after the Revolution Americans for the first time “saw that their culture was exclusively man-made” and that “they alone were responsible for what they thought and believed.”

For more than 200 years, Americans assumed they had complete liberty to make their own selves, their own society, and their own world, as long as they were able to democratically concentrate the political power necessary for action. They used competition policy as the main tool by which to engineer the opportunity to do so, and then to structure markets, corporations, and government investments to achieve their aims.

The problem with Richard Posner’s claim that “economic forces” help shape the law, and with Robert Bork’s claim that antitrust is a form of “science,” is not merely that these ideas were used to concentrate enormous power in almost every sector of the U.S. economy. It is also that in believing these republican heresies, we lost much of our understanding of how to use government to engineer competition to make a better world.

The third lesson about the future that we can learn from the past is that we can begin to remake ourselves into far more effective political actors simply by changing the words we use to describe our role within the political economy.

Traditional antimonopoly language defines the individual foremost as a “citizen,” then defines the citizen as a thinker, creator, grower, maker. These concepts, in turn, lead the citizen to focus foremost on their ability to exchange the goods and services and ideas they produce with fellow members of society at a fair value. This, in turn, helps reinforce the idea that markets and corporations are human-made institutions that citizens must shape to achieve their goals.

When Reagan officials used Bork’s concept of “consumer welfare” to help impose an efficiency regime on antimonopoly, the results went far beyond a merely technical rethinking of the purposes and mechanisms of the law. They also set into motion a redefinition of the individual American, both in the eyes of the law and in our own eyes, as passive buyers, eaters, button pushers, voyeurs.

John Milton is remembered mainly for his epics Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained. But during the English revolution of the seventeenth century, he devoted much of his time to sketching out principles of republicanism that continue to shape our lives today, through highly sophisticated essays on freedom of worship, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom from concentrated political power, and for a written constitution. Thanks largely to his close friendship with Roger Williams, the Puritan theologian who founded Rhode Island and who fought for separation of church and state and the abolition of slavery, Milton’s ideas exercised enormous influence in America in the century leading up to the Revolution.

Milton’s most important antimonopoly statement is the Areopagitica, a polemic published in 1644. In that work, the poet rails against the choking off, by a system of official censorship, of the mind of the individual in society. And though we now read the essay mainly as a pioneering defense of freedom of expression, Milton’s goal was far more than political freedom. The treatise was also a defense of freedom to know, to think, to commune, to make, to imagine. And most to my point here, Milton’s Areopagitica helps us relearn how one of the main aims of our fight against monopoly power is to engage every individual, to the fullest, in solving the great challenges of the day. Or as Milton put it, that all the people “be disputing, reasoning, reading, inventing, discoursing, ev’n to a rarity, and admiration, things not before discourst or writt’n of.”

So too in our time. Our fight is not merely to restore our ability to use competition policy to break the power of monopolists. Our fight is also, and perhaps mainly, to recreate a true democracy of thought in America, and to bring all our ideas, all our capacities as individuals, together, so we can begin the work of repairing the world, and rebuilding a future, together.

Antimonopoly is American 

In July 2021 President Biden made the most important statement on the dangers of monopoly by any president since 1936, when Franklin Roosevelt rebuilt the New Deal around competition policy. In his Executive Order on Competition, Biden recognized concentration of economic power as a threat not only to economic wellbeing but to democracy and individual liberty. The President described Bork’s “consumer welfare” philosophy as a “failed experiment.” He then ordered 72 distinct actions that stretched far beyond the Department of Justice and Federal Trade Commission to almost every major department of government, thereby resurrecting the traditional republican vision of an American state designed to foster the flourishing of every individual. The President then proved he truly wants aggressive enforcement by naming Lina Khan and Jonathan Kanter to head the FTC and Antitrust Division of the DOJ respectively. Earlier this year, the White House took the effort a step further, working with key allies in Congress to detail how concentration of capacity was largely responsible for soaring inflation, shortages of vital goods, and dangerous supply chain disruptions. 

Much of the Democratic party’s leadership has recklessly ignored efforts to explain today’s crises and to take action to fix them.

It is important to recognize that Biden built on the work of other Democrats. They include Senator Elizabeth Warren, who in June 2016 famously delivered the first major speech by a policymaker on America’s new monopoly crisis. And Rhode Island Congressman David Cicilline, who bravely launched investigations of Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, and other monopolists while Donald Trump was still in power. And Senator Amy Klobuchar, who has forged working relationships with Republicans to address the most immediate threats posed by big tech.

Unfortunately, much of the rest of the Democratic Party leadership has recklessly ignored these efforts to explain the origins of today’s crises and to take practical actions to fix them. This has left the party as a whole without a coherent explanation for what has gone wrong in our country, has turned control of the debate over to the Republicans and the monopolists themselves, has left critical threats to our democracy largely unchallenged, and has contributed to the confusion and demoralization of much of the party. Yes, the Supreme Court decision on Roe will likely increase Democratic base turnout. But the only way to make the Democratic Party truly attractive to voters across America is to explain in simple terms who strip mined our wealth and wellbeing, and who let them do it.

Such a narrative will empower Democrats to deliver big wins that truly improve the lives of every American. Fighting monopoly is a way to lower costs, raise wages, and protect workers and independent businesses from manipulation and exploitation; to radically speed innovation, especially in industries that affect our climate; and to protect the nation and the stability of the economy by rebuilding our ability to actually make what we need.

Almost as important, it is a narrative that will help Democrats win power and then keep it, by providing the party with the tools to:

  • Claim the moral high ground by detailing how monopolists cheat, thieve, bully, extort, seduce, incite sedition, and sometimes even murder, for profit.
  • Claim the intellectual high ground by demonstrating how traditional American democratic republican political economics can empower us to solve our biggest actual problems now.
  • Reinforce the fight against voter suppression and fundamentalism by tying it to a parallel fight for freedom, choice, and equality and against all forms of exploitation and control in our economic lives.
  • Resolve the debate between anti-corporate and pro-business Democrats by helping both groups relearn how to structure corporations and markets to achieve their common political, economic, and social ends.
  • Attract political and financial support from the innovative businesses the monopolists are suppressing, and the investors who support these upstarts. Demonstrate to independent businesspeople that Democrats can protect them against unfair competition, taxation, and intrusive regulation by giant corporations.
  • Line up a shooting gallery of villains to organize against, not only Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg, or such perennial malefactors as the airlines and drugmakers, but such hardcore takers and breakers of the American dream as Blackstone for its monopolization of housing, JBS for driving up the price of beef and pork, Union Pacific for shutting down vast swaths of the U.S. economy, and Duke Energy for exploiting its monopoly to push hydrocarbons on people who want to go green.
  • Disrupt the dangerously simplistic arguments of Larry Summers and the Republicans on the origins of inflation.
  • Teach us how to defeat the Federalist Society and the other Koch-funded political machines that are powering the takeover of the Supreme Court and the overthrow of U.S. democracy.

A generation ago, America’s liberals sat back and allowed extreme right-wing libertarians from both parties to steal our most powerful tool for making liberty and democracy and replace it with a philosophical fairy tale. And because antimonopoly was the tool we had used since the founding to understand and exercise dominion over our world, we have been left to wander now for 40 years, blind to the power of concentrated avarice and appetite fast grinding our democracy and lives to dust.

We have even failed to notice the most important intellectual revolution in our lifetime, in President Biden’s simple renunciation of the libertarian ideology that is the source of this crisis. 

Antimonopoly is neither an esoteric science nor some sort of spectator sport. Antimonopoly is how we—you and I—make liberty, democracy, prosperity, equality, and a happy future. It is our wisdom, our strength, our story. Let’s remember how to tell it. Let’s remember how to live it.

Read more about antimonopolyAntitrustEconomicspoliticsPopulism

Barry C. Lynn is Executive Director of the Open Markets Institute. His most recent book was Liberty from All Masters: The New American Autocracy vs. The Will of the People (2020)

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