Uber, The Old Taxi System, and The New Business World

File illustration picture showing the logo of car-sharing service app Uber on a smartphone next to the picture of an official German taxi sign in Frankfurt, September 15, 2014. A Frankfurt court earlier this month instituted a temporary injunction against Uber from offering car-sharing services across Germany. San Francisco-based Uber, which allows users to summon taxi-like services on their smartphones, offers two main services, Uber, its classic low-cost, limousine pick-up service, and Uberpop, a newer ride-sharing service, which connects private drivers to passengers - an established practice in Germany that nonetheless operates in a legal grey area of rules governing commercial transportation.    REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach/Files  (GERMANY - Tags: BUSINESS EMPLOYMENT CRIME LAW TRANSPORT)


In recent months there has been an increasing hostility in many cities and countries around the world against Uber, the ridesharing app group, the Silicon Valley offspring that is revolutionizing for-hire private transportation’s way of doing business.

The traditional taxi system around the world hasn’t had any significant improvements for decades, since its inception, almost a century ago. This system has essentially been resting in their laurels and hence, ripe for the taking.

Present technology lends itself beautifully for ordering a ride by mobile phone, and tracking the type of car, license number, driver’s name, and the waiting time, among other amenities —for instance, to be located where to be picked-up through GPS technology.

As we all know, Uber’s system only gives service to registered clients, who already have designated a credit card for the ride charge to take place —Uber does not accept cash as payment. On top of that, Uber’s system relies on private cars, instead of owning an automobile fleet, gaining invaluable capital deployment and cost-saving advantages. Furthermore, once the ride ends, in addition to an email confirmation about the service provided —including the corresponding credit card charge— both the driver as well as the passenger are rated, thus providing very useful information for all parties involved.

In short, the reach and level of service that Uber provides is miles ahead of the traditional taxi system.

Unsurprisingly, most of the taxi establishment has reacted with great hostility towards the innovating company with such a powerful and disruptive business model, trying to block Uber’s development wherever and whenever the taxi system can. This outright hostility has taken place all around the world, some recent cases are Germany and Mexico. Instead of accepting with lucidity and humility Uber’s overwhelming superiority over the outdated taxi system —which truly requires a profound revamping—, the establishment mostly has reacted by resorting to legal procedures trying to stop the inevitable. In some extreme cases, even physical violence has been at play.

What should be the appropriate reaction from the established system and why?

The answer is humiliatingly simple and painfully obvious: the collective acceptance of new business models brought about by —relatively— new technologies and creative thinking. Granted, this ideal behavior could only occur in Utopia, since we human beings are rather complex creatures; a spontaneous fair sport spirit has not ever been a collective common trait among us. The desire to protect one’s turf, even at the expense of everybody else is very common, yet an extremely unfair and harmful human characteristic.

On one hand, it is quite understandable that the status quo feels threatened by the new way of doing business and, up to a certain moderate degree, a hostile reaction makes some sense.

However, if history and logic are any valid guides, experience shows that all these types of episodes end up with the new technology (and/or way of doing business) prevailing over the old status quo. This is not an accidental result but a mere reflection of causation.

In an ideal world, whenever a new technology and/or a new way of doing business with a significant value added (in terms of Cost/Benefit) is implemented, society will rather rapidly adopt the new model. That’s the essential way through which mankind has been progressing throughout time. Regrettably, the adoption time of new, significantly improved ways of doing business until now has rarely been short nor trauma-free; hence, there is significant room for improvement in both scores.

The process of substitution and displacement of old technologies and business models for new and significantly better ways of doing things has been very appropriately named by economists as creative destruction.

If creative destruction were not constantly at work, among many other things, nowadays we still will be relying in the vacuum tube system instead of transistors and microprocessors.

However painful the adjustment turns out to be—for a relatively small minority, in this instance the world’s current taxi system—, it better be quick and well done. Nothing else will suffice.

The sooner the adjustment to the new and irreversible reality, the better. At the end of the day society is truly better-off with the new systems. That’s what really counts.

A similar rejection by the status quo has been experienced by Tesla Motors and the current automotive distribution system. Tesla Motors, the innovative company which has only relied in electric-car technology for its automobiles, also decided to sell its cars directly—bypassing the traditional automobile dealers network—, additionally setting up an also self-owned independent recharging center system along the way.

In the US there are a handful of states where Tesla cars cannot be sold, under the allegation of the violation of some local laws and regulations. Beyond technicalities and some outdated commercial regulations, the plain truth, however, is that the establishment has been reacting to what it (correctly) perceives to be a major threat to the customary way of doing business.

Both cases, Uber and Tesla, are very similar manifestations of a common root: focalized resistance to change for the better. In all these type of cases, relatively minor interests are —albeit temporarily— placed ahead of the interests of society as a whole.

Labor unions are a perfect example of the challenges and astounding opportunities technology is presenting mankind. The labor unions came to existence in a very different world to our present realities. In those days —also roughly over a century ago— communications were not instantaneous nor almost cost-free, as nowadays. In addition, transportation costs were substantially higher at that time. In short, strict and rigid laws and regulations were required to avoid excesses and exploitation from employers. In that socioeconomic environment labor unions made a lot of sense.

At present, and already for several decades and counting, the socioeconomic environment

has been increasingly flexible and favorable to the workers aspirations, working conditions and remuneration structures, not to mention mostly well thought labor laws.

Thus, in today’s world, from the workers’ standpoint, most of the time labor unions are an anachronism, often at the losing end of things, instead of a social and legal structure that adds value.

That’s the major reason behind the evident decline in significance and power labor unions have been increasingly experiencing during recent decades.

A great deal of the persistent stagnation and high unemployment the EU has been going through after the Euro crisis has to do with the marked rigidities in the labor front; an inflexibility championed by most —if not all— labor unions in the European continent.

Hence, the cost of maintaining the status quo in the labor front is costing the EU high levels of unemployment and a very painful economic stagnation.

The quicker we collectively advance in adjusting our typical labor mindset, including a flexible and open mind to new technologies and ways of doing business, the better.

Lee Kuan Yew’s Momentous Life

Lee Kuan YewThe recent passing of Lee Kuan Yew (Sep 16, 1923 – March 23, 2015) is a most appropriate occasion for evaluating his legacy.

Upon Great Britain’s withdrawal from Singapore in 1959, the People’s Action Party (PAP) won a landslide victory, during the May elections of the same year. Thereby, Singapore became an internally self-governing state within the Commonwealth, with Lee Kuan Yew as the country’s first Prime Minister.

The withdrawal of the British from Singapore was nearly catastrophic for the island’s bewildered inhabitants. The main economic engine of the city had been the British naval base. Its loss left a gigantic gap which was very difficult to fill (an impossibility, in the short run). The hardships and problems that this caused were dreadful.

No longer being able to depend on the island’s mainstay, the economy entered a severe period of contraction, a depression. Along with the British, many traders and merchants left the island. Basically, most of the population that stayed were highly illiterate, untrained workers; and they were all jobless! Ethnic problems were not minor, and poverty was rampant. Under such adverse circumstances, Singapore applied for admission to the Malayan Federation. Admission to this group was so difficult that it took almost four years to be obtained.

Singapore was part of the Malayan Federation for a very brief period, from 1963 to 1965. In the latter year, Lee Kuan Yew, the head of government, rejected a law that provided excessive economic privileges for Malays on the island. The federation’s reaction was blunt: Singapore was expelled. With great doubt, fear, and misgivings, Singapore proclaimed its independence on August 9, 1965, with a highly uncertain future, considering the country’s small size and the lack of any natural or organizational resources.

At that time, Singapore and its population faced a very difficult and truly chaotic situation. Singapore was virtually bankrupt, small, very poor, demoralized, disjointed: a nation astray. As if this were not enough, it had widespread corruption at all levels of society. In addition, the island was heavily contaminated and had an inadequate supply of fresh water.

As quickly as possible, Lee proceeded to establish order and discipline so as to give direction to this tiny, new nation. Less than two months after it was founded (in a truly fast-track process), Singapore was admitted into the UN, on September 21, 1965. Two years later, Singapore founded the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), along with three other nations.

Emulating the Swiss, Lee proclaimed a policy of neutrality and nonalignment. In this way, he immunized the new nation, at least in part, from many potential political pressures and commitments (Communism as a big and menacing threat at that time).

Lee made English the mandatory language, with the second language to be chosen depending on ethnic background, the three main ones being Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil. Lee’s efforts to improve public education were also drastic and very successful. To eliminate corruption, Lee gave special attributions to the Corrupt Practices Investigation Agency, which had great power to make arrests and to investigate bank accounts and tax returns. He also provided great impetus to the punitive practice of public flogging for certain crimes; for instance, considering the unseemly habit of frequent spitting in public, severe penalties were imposed. Thus in search of order and prosperity, Singapore became a zero-tolerance nation of Spartan laws. Lee also pushed for paying public officials at market levels to minimize corruption temptations and to demand better results of their efforts.

So, the transformation of Singapore from an extremely poor and strayed tiny nation to become an influential nation, and one of the wealthiest countries on earth (on a per capita basis), under the leadership of the same person (Lee Kuan Yew) in just 25 years is truly remarkable, with very few precedents (Hong Kong being the other case. See Sir John James Cowperthwaite and Hong Kong’s Domino Effect.). Singapore’s wealth is based on knowledge, organization and hard work.

Lee Kuan Yew showed a remarkable ability to make the best out of adversity. He did not choose Singapore to be independent. Quite the contrary, as previously mentioned. However, once Singapore was expelled from the Malayan Federation in 1965, Lee didn’t waste any time to pursue much higher goals.

He was the ultimate pragmatist. He abided by the old saying “If life hands you lemons… make lemonade”. Nonetheless, his ability to learn from others, quickly and well, was truly extraordinary. In most likelihood Lee must have drawn inspiration from the then nascent Hong Kong economic miracle, despite lacking a background in economics or finance (he was a lawyer educated in Great Britain).

Like all human efforts, Lee Kuan Yew’s life had some flaws, like his inclination towards nepotism and probably an excessive hard hand on political opponents. Nonetheless, on the average, Lee Kuan Yew’s successes by far outweighed his human failures. Despite the astonishing success of Singapore under his direct leadership and afterwards, and his long stay commanding the government, he was not a kleptocrat. Granted, in many respects Singapore under his rule was practically a dictatorship. Yet, a benevolent and extremely successful one.  His passion for excellence was unrivalled.

It is reasonable to state that Hong Kong and Singapore were a seminal experience that greatly influenced the destiny not only of the other two Asian Tigers, South Korea and Taiwan, but also of mainland China, among others. The world owes a lot to these tiny jurisdictions who have shown how excellence can be achieved coming from far behind.

As exposed in GLOBALIZATION, my book, those four nations have done an extraordinary service to the rest of humanity by providing the blue print  to transit successfully from rags to riches in a relatively short period. In fact, this great development both, inspired and guided  me into looking for a systematic, scalable way to replicate the Singapore experience in other extremely poor countries. As a subproduct, a very fresh, powerful, and badly needed source of extra growth for the world as a whole can be achieved (See TGP).

Russia: from Rags to Riches and Back

sad broken matryoshkaIt was only three years ago that the prevailing expectations of the Russian economy and where it was headed over the next years was favorable (or even very favorable). The evolution of Russia from the ashes of the USSR to a seemingly fairly solid direction towards a market economy and its increasing role in the international community had only a little over two decades. Granted, nothing is perfect. Nonetheless, that expectation was indeed widespread and had some reasonable foundations behind it.

Moreover, Russia was not alone at that. The then popular acronym of BRICs was widely used, to refer to a very evident accelerated development of Brazil, Russia, India and China. The expectation was that, given enough time, the sizeable critical mass of those four nations, coupled with an economic growth rate well above the average of the developed nations, would propel them to an increasing level of world influence.

What a difference a few years can make. Among the four BRICs,  both Russia and Brazil have experienced a huge reversal of fortune.

How can such a dramatic turn have occurred to Russia in just a few years?

The core of the answer to the previous question lies in the extremely poor-governance system Russia has. For practical purposes, Russia is a fully underdeveloped nation in this regard, not far from many struggling nations in the world. There is no significant checks-and-balances system in place. As a result, Vladimir Putin (or whoever happens to be in power, as long as the system isn’t significantly upgraded) operates with an almost total freedom with null or very poor supervision of its congress. Unfortunately, and as it is now very evident, Putin’s administration wasn’t really involved in a meaningful agenda of elevating Russia’s competitiveness when compared with the rest of the world. Russia has essentially been living of the relatively high income provided by the then high oil prices, supplemented with foreign debt.

Very sadly, the Russian economy is not functional. It needs drastic and very carefully implemented changes. Instead, Putin has embarked on a self-destructive campaign of territorial expansion, destroying along the way the relatively good atmosphere with the rest of the world before things deteriorated so rapidly, with no end-in-sight.

What are the lessons to be learned?

Ignorance of how the free markets and the world as a whole work, coupled with utter disdain for good and effective governance are a recipe for disaster.

The way the world functions is far from perfect. However, there is a lot of suffering, famine, wars, and hard work of many generations before us that have taken the world to where it is today. Hostility and military aggressiveness are not, at all, a sensible solution to anything.

Any well-thought, good-intentioned initiative to improve the world should be very welcome. Yet, respect and coordination among nations is imperative in order to truly gain any significant global and self-sustainable benefit. Today’s Russia is exactly at the opposite end, the wrong side of history. Let us hope for a substantial and not so distant change towards a virtuous cycle. Not only does Russia need it badly, but the whole world would benefit enormously with a sincere and passionate change towards constructive attitudes among nations.

Competitiveness Among Nations: Conclusions (Part Three)

“The worst evils which mankind has ever had to endure were inflicted by bad governments”

—— Ludwig von Mises


(…Continued from Part Two)

All over the world, the current political system has made most governments fall into complacency and allow a great deal of free-riding from probably the majority of elected officers. That’s why gridlock has resulted as a virtually inevitable outcome. Within that environment, serious, profound, virtuous structural change is almost impossible to implement.

Given that the bureaucracy and the establishment at large are experts in blocking change, the required strategy demands leadership, guts and plenty of skill.

History unmistakably shows that every single effort to mess with the markets is doomed for failure. That is the major reason behind the strepitous collapse of communism. Central planning is no match for free markets. History has unequivocally shown that.

However imperfect free markets are, as any human process, mankind has not developed a better system for high employment, growth, and prosperity.

Politicians should stop playing God. Whenever free markets can set the direction and the pace, mankind should follow.


The indispensable role that freedom plays in any human endeavor was extremely clear in Milton Friedman’s mind; hence, the superb title of one of his many books: Free to Choose.

Fair game is open borders: the ability to move freely, in and out of any country as they please  (for people, corporations, and capital). Any other approach is suboptimal, and quite costly to society. The feudal mentality, insulation and protectionism have caused too much damage to mankind.

A big irony of all this is that, despite the deplorable standing of the US when compared against the most competitive nations on earth on the tax burden subject, the US still manages to have a rather excellent overall standing (see Part Two of this series). Two comments in that regard:

  • Small nations like Singapore, New Zealand, and Switzerland, among others, are performing substantially better in the tax area, a foremost aspect of overall competitiveness. If things do not change substantially for the better in the US in the near future, it will only be a matter of time before some nasty spillover effects materialize. That is the way the economy functions.
  • If the US truly desires to maintain —or even better, improve— its competitiveness, it should better start right away, before things get uglier and more difficult to reverse.

Competition, a fundamental pillar of the free market system, is a superb and most effective checks-and-balance mechanism. Yes, competition very often is painful to be observed. Fortunately, the benefits far outweigh the costs associated with it. Governments should not be exempt from the market discipline.

Free-riding in governments must end. Policymakers have a most natural and disgusting tendency to avoid though decision making. Though decision making is the raison d’être  of government existence, in the first place.

Society must end its complacency on how government goes about doing business. The approach taken by the Obama administration concerning the tax diversion issue is a formidable example of how not to do things.

Not utilizing appropriately the price mechanism is extremely costly to society. The major reason behind the collapse of Communism and all centrally-planned economies is precisely that. Instead of following market signals (supply & demand) they tried to rely in the judgement of government officers who dictated who produced what, at what price it should be sold at and so on.

Whenever feasible, the market mechanism should be highly regarded and followed with the strictest discipline possible. Governments should not be an exception; quite the contrary, governments should set the example.

The cost of inappropriately allocating resources from society due to government meddling is humongous.

The misalignment of interest between policymakers and society is quite frequently grotesque. In the tax diversion issue it is a most evident reality. What policymakers want to protect and preserve in this issue, by not taking the bull by the horns, is a most illegitimate bunch of vested interests —at the expense of the electorate—. Policymakers are well aware that if they reacted appropriately, a great deal of questionable government programs will have to be severely reengineered, diminished and, in some cases, altogether cancelled.

It is evident that we, as a global society, still have a lot to learn about the virtues of free markets. Once that learning process is sufficiently advanced, there won’t be any room for false solutions to great opportunities for collective improvement in employment and the standard of living. The abnormally heavy tax burden in the US —and in so many other countries around the world— suffocates the global economy. There is no mystery or false debate about it. It’s as simple as that. Taxes must exist, yet within reason and particularly observing competitiveness with other nations. That checks-and-balances system is worth gold. We shouldn’t mess with it.

Society has to react and force governments to do their homework and sensible tough decision making, looking for the common good, not to protect illegitimate vested interests of minority groups.

Competitiveness Among Nations: Government Downsizing (Part Two)

…Continued from Part One of the series.

The challenge, and the great opportunity that the redomiciliation of corporations for tax purposes offers resides in responding to the market mechanism in an open, sincere and straightforward manner.

Ignoring the strong signals the market mechanism sends does not do any lasting good to anyone. Quite the opposite!

The table in this link provides provides a very powerful content. As it can be seen, in the World Bank’s general ranking of Doing Business 2013, the US is placed in a very high overall position, 4th, only behind Singapore (1st), Hong Kong (2nd), and New Zealand (3rd). That is a laudable accomplishment.

Likewise, the US’ overall standing in the Global Competitiveness Report 2013 of the World Economic Forum is also a very commendable 7th place —ranking 5th the previous year—, very much aligned with the Doing Business Survey already mentioned.

However, when analyzing the Paying Taxes sub-ranking of the Doing Business Report (8th column to the left of the table (click here), the findings are quite worrisome, since the US is placed in a very poor position, 64th, ironically tied with Russia. The distance between ranking #4 in the overall standing and #64 in the tax area couldn’t be more dramatic, a huge misalignment. Naturally, the logical aim is to look for realignment in this most crucial aspect by improving in the tax area not by deteriorating the overall standing.

In a recent speech in the West Coast, President Obama stated “You don’t get to pick which tax rate you pay” also mentioning that US companies that were redomiciling themselves to lower tax countries were “Technically renouncing their U.S citizenship”.

Obama was perfectly right in the second remark, yet a rather irrelevant point (please refer to Chapter 5 of my book, GLOBALIZATION,  “The Dysfunctional Traditional Nationality Concept”), and utterly wrong in the first one. In fact, globalization provides an extraordinary opportunity for the  rationalization of resources, across the whole spectrum and the globe, taxes included. Hence, contrary to Obama’s opinion, corporations have the right to choose and change when deemed convenient, the country where their legal residence will be.

Multinational organizations, by the mere reason of being so, already have been taking (fair) advantage of that condition. To expect a global corporation to behave like a local one is completely out of reason. Granted, global corporations ought to comply with all local laws and regulations in each and every country and jurisdiction they operate; that’s implicit. The core point is where to draw the line between local and global.

Appealing to blind nationalism does not make much sense. Economic principles must prevail at all times. No sensible local (or global) regulation should be aimed at trying to overrule economic principles; otherwise, the corporation’s profitability will be threatened and, at the extreme, even self-sustainability. That, in turn, would hurt the earning power of the citizens whose country is transgressing elementary economic principles (more on this here).

The wellbeing of a nation has to rely on the wellbeing of its citizens, including corporations (corporate citizens); it cannot be any other way. Simply put, the nation is the overall aggregate of many components; citizens and corporations happen to be the major ones.

Insulation and protectionism are terrible malaisses. They have never conducted to prosperity; quite the contrary. (read our article, Does protectionism Protect?)

The very essence of the market mechanism is to send signals to economic (and political, in this instance) actors so they can adjust —hopefully quickly and well— to new realities. At the core of this lie the concepts of limits and discipline —or their lack thereof. In summary, what are the true limits of taxation that governments have?

Undoubtedly, a difficult question to answer. However, and most fortunately, there is a perspective where a reply can be made with full confidence of correctness: the market itself sets the limits of taxation; that is to say, the rest of the world is a most legitimate and valid benchmark.

In this regard, there shouldn’t be any fundamental difference with the business world. The price mechanism —supply and demand— set the guiding lights for market participants. Governments are not and should not be an exception.

From this focus, companies that have moved away from the US to different jurisdictions with substantially lower overall tax rates have done so as an utmost logical response to preserve their economic interests. There is nothing wrong in that behavior, since it’s a very rational way of acting.

The right signal that mature, well-intentioned politicians should get from this trend is that the US has already gone overboard in the taxation area.

It’s time for the US to lower its overall tax structure to regain competitiveness among other nations in this extremely important area. Deregulation will also be of great help towards this end.

cut-spendingFrom another angle, how can nations like Ireland, Singapore, Switzerland, and Canada, just to name a few, not only survive but thrive with a tax structure substantially below the US’s. The answer to this is very simple: by providing a more effective way of doing business to its citizens (individual and corporate), and by having a more efficient management of their public finances, and of their overall tax structure (compared to the US’). It is as simple as that.

Sports provide a very valid and illustrative example of what we are talking about. The beating the German football team gave to Brazil’s in the World Cup Final back in July, was a superb manifestation of the significant superiority of Germany’s team over Brazil’s. Naturally, there are plenty of lessons to learn from this (read Globalization and the Olympics). There is no benefit in trying to hide the truth. Brazil’s team used to be almost unbeatable in its home-turf. Not anymore. If Brasil aims to regain its former global soccer preeminence, it has to adjust, learn, and command new techniques and procedures.

Likewise, countries that are performing poorly against the rest of the world in an specific area  should make the necessary changes to reverse their bad ways, and reposition themselves regaining lost ground.

Ideally, politics shouldn’t be substantially different … but they have been, up to now.

That’s represents a monumental opportunity for improvement in the wellbeing of the citizens of any nation flagrantly losing its competitive advantage, like the US has been doing in the tax area.

Just as every consumer has the inalienable right to choose which cable/internet provider best fits its economic needs, every corporation has the same right to choose where it is more cost efficient to hire personnel, to invest, and yes, also to pay its taxes.

Doing it otherwise, would be exactly the same thing as dictating to consumers which cable/internet provider to compulsory select and/or which toothpaste brand (and company behind it) must be used. A complete non-sense, only partially understandable when considering that successfully overcoming feudal and protectionist instincts and practices has been very difficult for mankind (read more here).

Ignoring market signals —at any level, including the transnational and global one— is as absurd, and foolish, as a person ignoring strong and recurring headaches, trying to solve them only with aspirin. At the individual level, strong and recurring headaches more often than not will imply a severe health imbalance requiring a deeper medical examination.

The US Congress should bite the bullet and go after a profound and sensible reengineering and restructuring of its finances, particularly its costs. If all this is appropriately conceived and executed, it will inexorably mean a drastic reduction of the size of government. Most fortunately, the benefits are humongously higher than the costs implicit in this utmost challenge currently facing the US.

Unfortunately, gridlock and hesitancy are two characteristics usually present in most governments. We all are well aware of the colossal costs they inflict upon society. In the US’ case, the costs of gridlocks are in the hundreds of billions a year, and hundreds of thousands of lost jobs.

The lack in tax competitiveness of the US should be a top priority of its Congress and President. If society does not exert the right pressure to correct this, the consequences will continue to be increasingly damaging to the US economy and its society.

The world should not continue to approach global challenges with mostly local solutions. All too often, local rigidities and dysfunctionalities get in the way of otherwise fair and constructive global processes.

Sound finances are a fundamental pillar of any prosperous nation. In turn, the tax system lies at the hearth of solid finances. When excessive tax rates are at work, the harmful spillover effect to the economy is inescapable. If out of control, consequences can be devastating.

Virtuous cycles can be reached if taxes are sufficient to finance government work. However, when checks and balances are insufficient and ultimately dysfunctional, a pernicious cycle begins to develop.

Judging by the relocation of some prominent US corporations to offshore countries, that pernicious cycle is already in progress in the US. It is both, the responsibility of the executive and the legislative powers to stop and reverse this trend.

Ironically, corporations that are relocating to lower tax jurisdictions, as a side effect, are rendering a most valuable service to their country of origin, by implicitly denouncing the US’ dangerous lack of competitiveness in its tax system.

Part Three of series coming next week.

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