British voters depressingly caught between a rock and a hard place

Britain is now in a very undesirable state. The governing Tories are bereft of any sensible ideas and likely to lose the next General election in 2024 to Labour, who are promising to be the party of ‘sound finance’, which means they will be incapable of dealing with the challenges that face the nation in a highly volatile world and will likely end up losing popularity and ceding government back to the Tories. And just as in 2010, the Labour reputation will tarnished and they will be lost again for another sequence of elections. That sort of future prospect is not inspiring is it. Caught between a rock and a hard place.

Labour promising to be Tories basically

A lot of confusion happened as a result of the pandemic – with traditionally austerity-biased political forces being forced to adopt pragmatic positions contrary to their nature and allow a greater fiscal role for government to support incomes and employment.

While the pandemic has been devastating, the fiscal interventions prevented the economic situation deteriorating and compounding the shocking health situation.

At least incomes were protected to a certain degree and jobs were protected (not fully but better than not).

It is true that the low income communities has borne the burden of the pandemic to date and that is because the policy interventions were not comprehensive enough.

One might have thought that the traditional social democratic political forces might have taken a lesson from this period of fiscal dominance and used it to categorically reject the neoliberal mainstream macroeoconomics narrative that has dominated for the last several decades.

But the truth is that just like the situation during the Global Financial Crisis, the social democratic forces in politics have not taken this opportunity to redefine the economic debate and broaden the policy space.

Rather, they seem to think that they have to be more conservative than ever and promise to be better at doing what Tories do naturally.

The British Labour leader gave a speech yesterday (January 28, 2023) in London

Three years ago, when I became leader I knew we had a huge task ahead. We had to change our party and prepare for power. We had to change our party and prepare for power all in one go. Not change for change’s sake. Change with a purpose to make our Labour Party fit to serve our country. That’s why we had to support Nato and show it’s non-negotiable.
Show want business to thrive and prosper. Understand the importance of sound money. Country first, party second. But most of all, it’s why we had to rip antisemitism out by its roots.

Our message at the next election must be that we are different to the party that Britain rejected in 2019. We just point to the changes we’ve made. We must say never again will Labour be a party of protest, not public service. Never again will Labour fail to grasp that economic stability is the foundation of our ambitions. Never again will Labour allow hate to spread unchallenged.

We’ve changed our party and we’re ready to change Britain. Ready to build a fairer, greener, more dynamic Britain, where working people succeed. Aspiratino is rewarded. Public services work. Communities control their own destiny.

A Britain with a sense of hope and possibility, once again. That’s what this Labour Party stands for. Let’s make it happen.

He also said:

The lesson of the last year is stark. Lose control of the economy, and its businesses and working people who pick up the bill. We can’t let that happen, even when it puts a brake on things – good Labour things – we might like to do in power. Sound money in our public finances comes first. But at the same time, we must be bold on reform, on reconstruction, on national renewal.

So the priorities appears to be – sound money “comes first” and “most of all” expunge antisemitism.

The antisemitism narrative in my view is a ruse to expunge the socialist influences in the Party.

There have been on-going purges over the last three years under the antisemitism banner which are really just about getting rid of the Left and reinforcing the right-wing forces within the Party.

Some excellent MPs and party workers have been expelled under this ruse to allow Starmer and his stooges to push to the Right.

Recent House of Commons Research Briefing (published January 17, 2023) –
The budget deficit: a short guide
(published January 17, 2023) – provide a relatively recent view of Britain’s fiscal position.

Do not take the report seriously other than the data. All the stuff about funding deficits etc is maintstream.

The data suggests:

1. “In the financial year 2021/22, government revenue – from taxes and other receipts – was £915 billion while government spending was £1,040 billion (£1.0 trillion). The deficit was therefore £125 billion, equivalent to 5.4% of GDP.”

2. “At 5.4% of GDP, the deficit was the UK’s twelfth largest since 1948.”

3. “During 2021/22, the Government was supporting households, businesses and public services through the coronavirus pandemic. Less support was provided than during the previous year when, as discussed below, the deficit reached a peacetime record of 15% of GDP.”

4. “Government spending increased from 39.5% of GDP in 2019/20 to 53.0% in 2020/21. The large increase reflects both government spending increasing in cash terms by around 24% and GDP falling by around 7%, in 2020/21.”

5. “Government revenues were equivalent to 36.7% of GDP in 2019/20 and 38.0% of GDP in 2020/21.”

6. “Since 1970/71, the government has had a surplus (spent less than it received in revenues) in only five years. The last … surplus was in 2000/01.”

7. “Since 1970/71, the average annual budget deficit is 3.7% of GDP.”

8. “Relatively large budget deficits are forecast for 2022/23 and 2023/24 as the UK faces high inflation, rising interest rates and a weak economy.”

Think about some of the challenges that the new government will face.

The NHS is in a deplorable state as a result of the austerity imposed on it by the Tories over the last 11 years or so.

It has a massive funding shortfall and the King’s Fund identified major staffing shortfalls – NHS staffing shortages: Why do politicians struggle to give the NHS the staff it needs? (November 24, 2022).

It is 7 per cent short of required doctors and 12 per cent short of nursing staff and the problem is getting worse by the year. Other ancillary health needs are well short of the required staffing levels.

The Report noted above concluded that the staffing problem alone means that the NHS will not be able to deliver output sufficient to meet government targets.

Reports late last year indicated that even at the current scale the costs will be rising by at least £4 billion at the same time that the Tories are pushing the service to make ‘efficiency savings of £14 billion over the next three years or so.

Obviously, the manifestation of these shortfalls are longer waiting lists, overstressed existing staff – with rising absenteeism, sickness claims, and premature exits – further exacerbating the situation.

Britain will also have to deal with the increasing problem of Covid disability which will see millions of people in need of extra health care relative to what might have been expected prior to the pandemic and slower growth in the labour force as this cohort will not be able to work.

Major funding and support for skills development with significantly higher wages will be required.

British Labour has so far not demonstrated they are willing to address the funding shortfall and produce a plan to redress the years of neglect.

As far as I can work out the only announcement has been to say they will divert receipts arising from cancelling the privilege that so-called ‘non-domiciled individuals’ enjoy with respect to paying taxes only on their UK-derived income (Source) and restoring the top income tax band.

This is a Corbyn-era policy.

Even though this is a step in the right direction – to reducing inequality – it is hardly going to fix the NHS neglect.

At last year’s Annual Labour Conference, the shadow chancellor claimed that they would ‘raise’ £2 billion from the tax changes which is hardly going to cover the massive funding shortfall – from past neglect and future cost challenges.

And it also perpetuates the taxes fund government spending narrative which is at the core of the problem facing Britain in the period ahead.

What does Starmer actually mean by ‘sound finance’?

Well if the speech the Shadow Chancellor gave at last yaer’s Labour conference is anything to go by it means that any policy initiative will be:

… carefully costed and fully funded.

Fully-funded means matched with tax revenue.

So fiscal-neutrality.

The pandemic pushed the fiscal deficit above its long standing average of 3.7 per cent of GDP.

There is no way that the government can pursue a meaningful green transition, fix up the NHS, restore public transport, restore the quality of water supplies, and more if it is not prepared to oversee an above average fiscal position for at least two terms of governments.

The damage to Britain’s public sector is so significant that limiting spending to what it collects in taxes will leave Britain seriously short of effective government.

But the Tories are being Tories – again

As the March fiscal statement is approaching, the British Chancellor is out and about massaging expectations.

He is trying to claim that Britain’s problems are centred on workers who have either retired early as a result of Covid or not looking for work hard enough.

He also claimed that (Source):

… sound money must come first … restraint on spending.

The Tories are currently refusing attempts by education and health care workers for adequate pay rises and constraining spending in the areas they have neglected over the last decade (social welfare, prisons, etc).

In a major speech in London last Friday (January 27, 2023), the Chancellor spoke in jargon – denying that Britain was facing “declinism”, which was rather similar to when David Cameron spoke of the – Big Society – in 2013.

Both vacuous statements not backed by any policy assurances – just spin.

He claimed that the Tories would target “the four Es” by which he meant – “enterprise, education, employment, everywhere”.

Note that marketing spin defines the 4 Es as “Experience, Everyplace, Exchange, and Evangelism”.

The Chancellor however clearly considered all this action would come from the private sector, which has failed dramatically when given public assets and essential services to operate under the privatisation agenda.

I also could not find any coherent proposal to improve education when the current position is to force real wage cuts on teachers and maintain spending anywhere near where it has to be to upgrade British state schools to redress the previous shortfalls.

And my reading of the apprenticeship levy, which was introduced in 2017 to ‘raise funds’ to cover the training needs, is that it has been a disaster.

It is an old idea (Harold Wilson even such levies in the 1960s).

The problems have been:

1. Apprentice openings dramatically declined after 2017, even given the pandemic that was to come.

2. At the time, there was a massive shortfall projected in apprenticeship completions and skills development. That means extra funding was needed rather than a shift from a grant scheme to the levy.

3. There has been a bias in the selection against young workers.

And we probably need to note that ‘levelling up’ has become ‘everywhere’ and the failure of the current government in the former agenda will cripple the renamed agenda.


The point is that both sides of British politics are crippled by the same fictional mania about having to design policies that cover spending with tax revenue, not understanding that to really address the challenges will require substantially larger fiscal deficits for an extended period into the future.

The apprenticeship levy is a case in point – it was previously a grant system (that is funded by public spending). When it shifted to a ‘levy’ system, the public spending was withdrawn, which, in part, goes to the core of its dysfunction.

Both sides of politics want to have ‘sound finance’ – which will seriously limit what they can do.

The scale of what they can do is in this respect is tiny compared to what they must do to prevent Britain declining further.

It is pretty depressing that the choice facing the people is thus.

That is enough for today!

(c) Copyright 2023 William Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.

This Post Has 17 Comments

  1. “The point is that both sides of British politics are crippled by the same fictional mania about having to design policies that cover spending with tax revenue.”

    That’s the NATO economic paradigm.. Just imagine what would have happened if the UK after Brexit had let rip. The EU would have fell apart, everybody wanting some of that. Why in the negotiations after the Brexit vote this had to front and centre and not allow the UK to let rip and use the power of its sovereignty.

    Nothing to do with economics, as you can’t run treasuries and central banks for 100’s of years without understanding how they really work. History shows full well they know how it works and did so over many years. Sound money is all about geopolitics and keeping a united front, as the West have Russia and China in their sights. Corbyn had to go, as what is happening in Ukraine was in their planning for over a decade.

    Hollande, Merkel and now Boris have come out and told the world that the Minsk agreement was never going to be signed. It was a stalling tactic in order to train Ukrainian forces to a NATO standard and start this war with Russia. The greens and the liberals are now the war mongers in Germany who would have believed it. Well every MMT’r on the planet who was paying attention. Truth being we are all a proxy of the United States and Ukraine is just the beginning. They decide what face we get to vote for.

  2. MMT lens + ideology = Policy.

    Clear as day – MMT lens + NATO = policy.

    Even when the Tories decided to let rip MMT lens + Tory ideology = Policy look what happened. As per usual the true leaders of the country deliberately created a mini crises and declared a big black hole in the budget as the BOE deliberately decided not to act. Which put MMT lens + NATO = policy back in control of the government.

    Exactly the playbook that got Thatcher elected in the first place and allowed the then MMT lens + NATO = policy to push through the structural reforms that were implemented. That encouraged EU member states to give up their sovereignty and U turn into this war mongering block. That would allow Eastern European states to join up as the Berlin wall was out on wheels and expanded forever Eastwards.

    They knew what would happen as German tanks now roll again across Russia in the hands of neo nazis in Ukraine. Put us all on the brink of world war 3. Whilst also declaring that their generals get ready to be at war with China within the next 2 years.

  3. Decline of the UK’s economy began a long time ago, before the pandemic and before brexit (Perry Anderson got us a splendid account of it in
    In fact, it began after WWI, when the British empire began to crumble to the ground and got itself replaced by the American empire.
    Without huge colonies like India, to exploit people and resources, the British economy had to compete with other economies.
    And that’s the fundamental flaw of the capitalist regime: capitalists can’t compete; they need something else to keep solvent.
    First, there were slaves and colonies.
    For 40 years, capitalism expoited the Chinese people.
    But that’s (almost) over.
    Now, there’s monopolies and corporate wellfare.
    Now, there’s hedge funds and monetarist wellfare for the rich.
    Monetarist wellfare for the rich gave us quantitative easing.
    Commercial banks got loaded with central bank’s profligacy.
    They built huge reserves – in central bank’s accounts! Useless money!
    And then came inflation.
    But inflation has to be tamed, before it jumps to hyperinflation.
    And so came quantitative tightening.
    And now, monetarist wellfare for the rich is paying interest on those reserves.
    That’s not MMT.

  4. Thank you Bill for shedding light on the ‘sound money’ world that the UK politicians ‘compete’ in. Starmer makes it ever plainer, not that it has been in doubt for a long time, that he is a very nasty piece of work. The antisemitism narrative which is he is banging ever more having got away with silencing the findings of the Forde Report which didn’t come in on message, has undoubtedly been used to expunge any left wing influence, but Starmer’s personal cosying-up (group-think) to the Israeli embassador, ‘a religious right-winger’, may explain why it continues to be such a prominent concern. The sound money/unaffordable narrative is meanwhile having the desired effect for the Tories of driving increasing numbers of middle-class people into taking out private health insurance, with health professionals being drawn into the private sector. We will be left with a private health sector enjoyed by the wealthy, but made acceptable and commonplace by the middle class who pay for it, and a rump public service for those who don’t have a financial choice, or are daft enough to have moral values. In the long term, after maybe another couple of rounds of Con/Labour governments and perhaps the emergence of a breakaway left party, I can see us finally getting some form of proportional representation aimed at shutting off a left challenge for good. Manipulation of democracy to continue Establishment rule of course long predates NATO with which Derek Henry is wordily fixated. This is the NATO whose members were very happy integrating Russian energy into their economies and not preparing tanks or Ukrainian soldiers to fight on their behalf. And East Europeans who were just brainwashed NATO agents knocking down the Berlin Wall 33 years ago establishing states without Russian army barracks in their backyards and Stasi surveillance over their lives. As for China, there is only side that continues to threaten to restart the Civil War that ended 74 years ago and has the hypocrisy to charge ‘the west’ with wanting to restart a cold War.

  5. I must respectfully disagree. Purpose of the deficit is not to finance any of the programs you mentioned. Purpose of the deficit is to provide savings for the non-government sector.

  6. @Paulo Rodrigues re: ‘For 40 years, capitalism expoited the Chinese people.’ I assume you’re referring to the last 40+ years of Socialism with Chinese characteristics! No sign of that changing anytime soon, though there may be an adjustment to production for more domestic markets if they can find more useful things to produce for like health and social services rather than empty tower blocks and high speed rail (which is coming to an end) and military and security. Still, I doubt you’ll find too many Chinese people (who I have a lot of time for) exchanging the last 40 years for a repeat of the first 30 years of the PRC with mass starvation in isolation except for food being exported for weapons technology and then the horrors of the Cultural Revolution. ‘But inflation has to be tamed, before it jumps to hyperinflation.’ – our leaders are doing the sound money, taming inflation bit without that nut job excuse.

  7. In the U.S. the dodge is to always spend more money than revenues then tag the extra spending as a ‘deficit’ requiring the use of debt to pay for the budget. All along the way conservatives claim they would cut spending and balance their budgets. Which they never do because they’d be tossed to the curb next election. The mid term results showed what would happen if they actually did do this. They lost seats just talking about it. My view is that it is entirely stupid to take on debt, and therefore the overhead of compound interest, in order to ‘pay for’ the government spending. Just pay directly. No debt. It’s the same amount of money. Exactly. Just without the interest overhead. Over time trillions of wasted dollars! This paying for unnecessary debt is in no way ‘conservative.’ Astonishing.

  8. Dear Hepion (at 2023/01/30 at 10:18 pm)

    I don’t know where you got the idea that the purpose of a government spending more than its tax revenue was to provide savings for the non-government sector.

    A fiscal deficit does achieve that aim but as a by product of stimulating national income, to ensure all those who want to work can find jobs, given the spending decisions of the non-government sector.

    So the aim is well-being and via the multiplier process a number of things occur, including lifting national income, which in turn funds the saving desires of households.

    best wishes

  9. Bill wirtes, “It is pretty depressing that the choice facing the people is thus.”

    I have the joy of living in the UK, where literally nothing works. I can’t think of one system/service which is functioning at an adequate level.

    And yes, I am aware that our choice is the unprofessional, dishonesty, and unaccountability party, or the conservative centre-right wing party led by Starmer.

    And one of the reasons our political system looks like this, is because of it’s relationship with the fourth estate. So if you poll people about then what you find is that they in the main express left-wing progressive views, however if you ask them who they will vote for, then they will select conservative right wing parties.

    And one of the reasons for this is the anti-left wing progressive bias that streams out of our mains stream media outlets, where it is acceptable for people like Richard Madeley and Piers Morgan to scream at union leaders and others who express liberal/progressive views. And while these two “icons” are at a fairly extreme end, you will notice that journalist will display more hostility to left wing progressive interviewees, than they will to conservative right wing ones.

    Thinking about this, I had a fantasy, that Bill became our Labour Leader, but then I wondered how he would feel after the 10th interview with one of our outstanding and erudite journalists screaming Zimbabwe and bankrupting the country at him.

  10. It is, of course, the conventional wisdom that Labour is on course for a big win in the next election. I’m not so sure. Keir Starmer has pushed the Labour Party closer to a real split than at any time in its history. The split, if it happens, will involve not just a few MPs as we saw with the SDP in the 80s, and Renew in the late 2010s but some Trades Unions, plus several hundred thousand members and ex members. It would be more correct to describe it as a split in the Labour movement rather than just the party itself.

    The way Keir Starmer handles the Jeremy Corbyn reselection issue will be crucial. It is difficult to see either side backing down so a likely scenario is that Jeremy Corbyn will be deselected as an official Labour candidate but still end up standing again in Islington North. However, not be as an Independent as many have assumed. He will know that he will have huge support from Labour Party members, and he will of course know that anyone giving support to a non-Labour candidate will face immediate expulsion according to the Labour Party rulebook. He will need to ensure that everyone who does support him has a new political home, which he can do by creating a new party. Therefore, he will likely be standing as the leader of this new party which will then trigger the split in the Labour movement.

    Many on the Labour right would welcome this and be of the opinion that it will increase their electability. I don’t believe they are correct. A split Labour Party and Labour movement generally will not be able to win. The Labour Party membership has put up with Starmer’s dull approach in the expectation that he will lead it to another 1987 style sweeping political victory. If this doesn’t happen his political career will be over.

    I could be wrong but this course of events is at least a serious possibility.

  11. @ Hepion,

    By the same logic you could argue that the purpose of private sector savings (including the overseas sector) is to enable the Government to run a deficit. It’s just about impossible to separate cause and effect

    I would put it that the purpose of the Government running a looser fiscal policy is, as Bill says, to ensure as close as possible to full employment without overheating the economy and thereby creating too much inflation. Whether or not this increases the Govt deficit depends on the spending behaviour of the non Government sectors. If they save to a greater extent the macroeconomic effect could be neutral at the same time as the Govt deficit is increasing.

    PS I feel rather nervous about expressing such a view on Bill’s blog!

  12. @Peter Martin You’re right in that I think there is zero chance of Starmer allowing Corbyn to rejoin the Parliamentary Labour Party and thus standing as a Labour candidate. Pretty sure he will put himself up as a candidate, to enable his constituents to vote for the chap they thought they’d elected as a Labour MP last time. Starmer’s crew are meanwhile ensuring that every other candidate is one that will push the Starmer line. Will be interesting/frightening to see how many voters defect back from the Cons to Labour or revert to a no vote (as was increasingly the case before the 2017 election), and how many left-leaning voters stick with Starmer as the only alternative or vote Green or independent (or stay at home) looking toward a longer term change and emergence of a true left party. I doubt that Corbyn will take the lead though. Unfortunately that moment of possibility of change has passed.

  13. Reply to @Chris
    I would say “..paying for unnecessary debt…” is kind of Conservative, big “C”. The Conservative movement is well served by the likes of both the Tories and Starmer/Blairites – the tactic being to make government appear “broke” and “financially incompetent.” Although “the government is broke” is always false, the narrative fed to the ill-educated public is largely successful and the incompetence of the politicians running the fiscal side of government almost goes without saying. However, if one of their goals is to weaken public confidence in government, I would say they look to be highly competent.

  14. Reply to @Hepion
    I think your second attempt got it about right. The way I would frame it is that we ought not even obsess over the government deficit for fiat currency issuers. There is no “purpose” to the deficit in some sense, it is a mere accounting residual, so is what it is for whatever guided or misguided policy the government adopts. So I would say the capacity to sustain in perpetuity any deficit required is a tool. The purpose to which this tool could be used is as you stated, to reach sustainable resource use full employment , by floating targeted supply injection of currency with roughly stable price level. (The monopolists choice: float supply or float price.)

  15. Our public broadcaster, the ABC, has been captured by the corporate-political network of mates. Publicly funded journalists of today seem to hate being left out of the club. Very little independence of thought and enquiry. The field of economics reporting at the ABC does have a couple of contrarians in Michael Janda and particularly Gareth Hutchens. How they manage to survive within the gaggle of the orthodoxy I know not.

    Business receives public largesse directly (the government sanctioned rorting of JobKeeper by business during the early stages of this pandemic was an in your face example) or indirectly via government advertising with a “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” flow through portion of the advertising or contract handout dollar ending up as party political donations. They know where the unlimited supply of money comes from Nothing to see here? Political parties are a cheap buy and there is no better financial return for business on such miniscule outlays. Business readily becomes a retirement sinecure for captive politicians and around and around it goes.

    Not that we didn’t know, but as just now revealed during the Robodebt Royal Commission of enquiry, tame journalists get fed from the politicians’ tables and report as stenographers pumping out their exclusives. Publish our propaganda and we’ll feed you some more. Many journalists aren’t particularly bright, are fairly thin-skinned and run around acting superior because they think they know something we don’t. In my own profession (not economics) I would read journalist reports on matters in which I had expertise and invariably there would be errors. If journalists couldn’t get something right that I knew then what about the rest of whatever they publish? They are in positions of substantial public trust but so often fail in that duty. Perhaps they could say that they are merely taking their lead from the culture demonstrated by the senior public servants, politicians and staffers as revealed by the ongoing Robodebt RC. That old adage that the fish rots from the head holds true.

    As soon as they’re threatened they sure club together. “All professions are conspiracies against the laiety”, said G B Shaw. The Murdochracy remains the biggest blight in our media firmament and exerts a similar malign influence here as it does in the US and the UK.

    How about some small changes in language when the heterodoxy talk about debt by using the qualifiers “public” or “private” on each occasion, as appropriate. Also, a back to basics on first principles of fiat money (money is debt/a promise) would be a good place to start rather than always leaping straight into the macroeconomics of (private/public) debt as the great majority in the private sector have, in its collective mind’s eye, that such means being cashed up with capital or borrowing before spending. And, in addition, put forward that the economy isn’t money but it is activity employing a pool of finite resources where money merely keeps score. That activation being achieved through the spending of money. Use every opportunity to make clear that only the monopoly issuer (government) is a net spender into the economy. Private banks being licensees of the monopoly issuer and which only have the capacity to issue the currency via loans to private parties where those loans must be associated with a legal obligation to repay – so that no net currency has been issued by private banks into the private sector.

    Repetition, refining the language used to convey simple word pictures for essential ideas and challenging the orthodoxy to explain the money thing that they have propagandised are all part of the struggle. If after all these years the heterodoxy is having the same problems cutting through and remain blocked by the MSM, perhaps it’s time to consider other ways. Of course, the MSM blockage is a huge obstacle but an infiltration from the bottom up via, say, the stalwarts of socially progressive but economically ignorant Twitter outside the silos of MMT Twitter which keeps talking to itself is still to happen. When/If the socially progressives know that they can’t expect to achieve those outcomes while maintaining a “financially conservative”/”sound finance” stance (because they have been lied to by both sides and the Greens) they will/should be angry and loud. Those politically active progressives in Australia are already increasingly onboard seeing neoliberalism as a massive problem. They can see what needs to be done but they don’t have the economic reality that has a chance of dealing it a death blow.

  16. John Button Oration September 2022. More intelligent analysis of the problems of orthodox economics by an MMTer – a lesson in money/MMT
    Why hasn’t this, been talked about in MSM before now? Not one mention seen in MSM since presented 4 months ago.
    The powers that be don’t want the people to know the actuality of economics and what is possible for the many ahead of the few. Where are the self-styled progressive think tanks such as The Grattan Institute and The Australia Institute singing this on high – nowhere to be seen. They are shameful organisations cowed by vested interests and the orthodoxy club that they cling to.

    What is government for?

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