Home > The Economics Profession > How to re-establish economics as a realist and relevant social science (5 changes)

How to re-establish economics as a realist and relevant social science (5 changes)

from Lars Syll

Economics – and especially mainstream neoclassical economics – has as a science lost immensely in terms of status and prestige during the last years. Not the least because of its manifest inability to foresee the latest financial and economic crisis – and its lack of constructive and sustainable policies to take us out of the crisis.

We all know that many activities, relations, processes and events are uncertain and that the data do not unequivocally single out one decision as the only “rational” one. Neither the economist, nor the deciding individual, can fully pre-specify how people will decide when facing uncertainties and ambiguities that are ontological facts of the way the world works.

Neoclassical economists, however, have wanted to use their hammer, and so decided to pretend that the world looks like a nail. Pretending that uncertainty can be reduced to risk and construct models on that assumption have only contributed to financial crises and economic havoc.

How do we put an end to this intellectual cataclysm? How do we re-establish credence and trust in economics? Five changes are absolutely decisive. 

(1) Stop pretending that we have exact and rigorous answers on everything. Because we don’t. We build models and theories and tell people that we can calculate and foresee the future. But we do this based on mathematical and statistical assumptions that often have little or nothing to do with reality. By pretending that there is no really important difference between model and reality we lull people into thinking that we have things under control. We haven’t! This false feeling of security was one of the factors that contributed to the financial crisis of 2008.

(2) Stop the childish and exaggerated belief in mathematics giving answers to important economic questions. Mathematics gives exact answers to exact questions. But the relevant and interesting questions we face in the economic realm are rarely of that kind. Questions like “Is 2 + 2 = 4?” are never posed in real economies. Instead of a fundamentally misplaced reliance on abstract mathematical-deductive-axiomatic models having anything of substance to contribute to our knowledge of real economies, it would be far better if we pursued “thicker” models and relevant empirical studies and observations.

(3) Stop pretending that there are laws in economics. There are no universal laws in economics. Economies are not like planetary systems or physics labs. The most we can aspire to in real economies is establishing possible tendencies with varying degrees of generalizability.

(4) Stop treating other social sciences as poor relations. Economics has long suffered from hubris. A more broad-minded and multifarious science would enrich today’s altogether too autistic economics.

(5) Stop building models and making forecasts of the future based on totally unreal micro-founded macromodels with intertemporally optimizing robot-like representative actors equipped with rational expectations. This is pure nonsense. We have to build our models on assumptions that are not so blatantly in contradiction to reality. Assuming that people are green and come from Mars is not a good – not even as a “successive approximation” – modeling strategy.

  1. December 30, 2012 at 10:31 am

    I’m sorry but is this a joke? How do you “re-establish” what never was let alone what was never “established”. Neoclassical economics is to any kind of scientific economics even less than paint-by-numbers is to art. It is a set of contrived “axioms” and tautologies, that form contrived inputs into syllogisms pre-ordained to arrive at an ideologically given “ergo A = C” of orgiastic and bombastic hypothetico-deductivism. How many more trees have to die for worthless articles in worthless journals few will read, fewer will rmember and no one can use to make any change even in critiques of this worthless edifice of alchemy, quackery and worse?

  2. Mike
    December 30, 2012 at 10:59 am

    What is left of economics if you remove those five foundations? I would add another. Stop using pseudo-scientific language that objectifies human relations in a way that allows the other five issues above to occur. If you do that, and remove the other five foundations stated above, the result will be that economists will become anthropologists. This would be a very good thing.

  3. December 30, 2012 at 12:47 pm

    Dear Lars ,

    you’re right and wrong, but let me pick some of your arguments related to mathematics. First we should mention some fundamental thing to mathematics: Math is not the science of counting and calculating some numbers, such is only a very small part of it. Although the part that is known to everybody and often is identified with maths. But this is wrong. Maths is the science of pure logic and those maths learned in school and high-school is not more than say 1% at max of it. Indeed everything that’s logic can be put into maths, regardless of being engineering tasks, philosophical or especially economic tasks.

    The real madness is indeed, that the majority of economist are very badly trained in mathematical modeling techniques. So you are indeed right when you say: „..Neoclassical economists, however, have wanted to use their hammer, and so decided to pretend that the world looks like a nail. Pretending that uncertainty can be reduced to risk and construct models on that assumption have only contributed to financial crises and economic havoc…“. Indeed those classical models used are at the best naive, indeed they are from the view of physics and engineering standards nothing but rediculous. The failures are that silly that as a physicist I’m really shocked.

    What follows is indeed what you state: “…But we do this based on mathematical and statistical assumptions that often have little or nothing to do with reality. By pretending that there is no really important difference between model and reality we lull people into thinking that we have things under control….“. The reason why is but not maths, but not to understand how to use maths for modeling.

    The in fact reason you give when you state „…Mathematics gives exact answers to exact questions…“. That’s the bull’s eye! If the question is badly defined, the answer can never be better! It’s exact what happens in classical growth models. Just one example: The Cobb Douglas Function states Y=c*L^a*K^b, or mathematically just Y=f(K), which means the GDP Y is some function of Capital K. But this is nothing but just writing down the answer to the searched economic unknown Y down by the economist himself! The answer can always be just what one states there. Such „models“ are „What-you-state-is-what-you-get“ models. A physics student would get be fired out of his seminar for such an ansatz!

    Your next statement but is fundamentally wrong: „…Stop pretending that there are laws in economics. There are no universal laws in economics…“. This is indeed also pure nonsense, as one can easily show. Also the next statement is just back to the past: „…The most we can aspire to in real economies is establishing possible tendencies with varying degrees of generalizability….“, as this is indeed what macro-economist did (and do) the last century, not less, not very much more. This is no way to change things in any way.

    With your last statement you’re right again: „…Stop building models and making forecasts of the future based on totally unreal micro-founded macromodels with intertemporally optimizing robot-like representative actors equipped with rational expectations. This is pure nonsense. We have to build our models on assumptions that are not so blatantly in contradiction to reality….“. Exactly it is the way to do it. And: Use the correct techniques of pure logic, Maths of the Art (to model building: field theory) for it, and use no assumptions that are in contradiction to reality.

    It’s just that easy: Instead of taking into account only the loans to economy, take into account every asset of the nation (and its return on investments); and use some simple fundamentals of field theory (which means look for so-called invariances, or say it in economics: exact balances) and you get those fundamental laws we are searching for: Crisis included! Indeed Crisis is an intrinsic problem of capital driven economies which arise in a very regular manner.


  4. Anon
    December 30, 2012 at 12:48 pm

    I would add “history” to the list, both in terms of economic ideas and understanding past events. Before the field of economics can be truly free (and thus a science), it has to rid itself of its capitalist blinders, especially the presumptions about optimal human behaviour.

    • Bruce E. Woych
      December 30, 2012 at 5:34 pm

      Anon: As long as economics is viewed as a market contest of gains, it will (like history) continue to be written by the victors and the status will be a zero sum game of strategic class sustaining rules.
      It is clearly time that the paradigm change from the bottom up (Polanyi and Keynes are early pioneers within the class structure)…but it is also clearly time that the victims have a voice.

      I would agree that Maximization is the single greatest pervertion in the dogma of Class worship, but the ideal of optimal or optimum is an adjustable level that ranges safely between minimalism and its exhausted limit of the maximum. Clearly it is not true that all human beings maximize exponentially without concern for each other; and it is also true that they are rightly capable of optimizing with a mutual interest.

      I would add the history of ideas to your critical history and ground them both is a critical reality!

  5. December 30, 2012 at 3:14 pm

    As someone who has come to embrace and teach classic political economy as developed by Turgot, Smith, Mill, George and others, I agree with much of what you have to say about economics. However, political economy does offer laws of production and distribution we can rely on. The condition is that these are laws of tendency, subject to the influence of numerous externalities. To the extent we are able to understand the impact of externalities we are able to forecast tendencies (e.g., the boom-to-bust cycles that plague our societies).

    The most serious problem with neoclassical theory is the attempt to treat land (i.e., nature) as a capital good. This is a view express frequently with little reaction from those who teach neoclassical economics in the classroom. The political economists understood that the rent of land is not produced by any individual, that rent appears as a claim on production because of population growth and aggregate demand for a factor of production with an inelastic supply. They then debated on moral grounds whether rent should be left in the hands of private landowners or societally-collected. With only a small number of exceptions professors of economics over the last century have side-stepped this moral issue even though the consequences have been to doom us to periodic economic and financial crashes.

  6. Bruce E. Woych
    December 30, 2012 at 4:49 pm

    What a great quest and question. It stirred me to pretenses beyond my own belief! So here’s some open work for the offering …”towards a revised foundation for discoveries”

    nomos, ( Greek: “law,” or “custom”: ) plural Nomoi, in law, the concept of law in ancient Greek philosophy….convention as opposed to physis or nature.

    NOMOS (or Nomus) was the god or spirit (daimon) of law….
    Orphic Hymn 64 to Nomos (trans. Taylor) (Greek hymns C3rd B.C. to 2nd A.D.) :
    “Hymn to Nomos (Law). The holy king of gods and men I call, heavenly Nomos, the righteous seal of all: the seal which stamps whatever the earth contains, and all concealed within the liquid plains: stable, and starry, of harmonious frame, preserving laws eternally the same. Thy all-composing power in heaven appears, connects its frame, and props the starry spheres; and unjust envy shakes with dreadful sound, tossed by thy arm in giddy whirls around. ‘Tis thine the life of mortals to defend, and crown existence with a blessed end; for thy command alone, of all that lives, order and rule to every dwelling goes. Ever observant of the upright mind, and of just actions the companion kind. Foe to the lawless, with avenging ire, their steps involving in destruction dire. Come, blest, abundant power, whom all reverse, by all desired, with favouring mind draw near; give me through life on thee to fix my sight, and never forsake the equal paths of right.”

    Integrated multi-field economics:

    1 reunite links to ecological reality: Grounded approach to “Realpolitik”, development
    of “econo-graphic methods”.(aka:ethnograhpic field adaptation)

    2. full three dimensional demographic scope : History, political and social approach

    3. Gradient bridge between the Micro and the Macro constructions of theory: these should interrelate and correlate, and economics should be interested in precisely how these act in transition..

    4. Statics AND Dynamics not one OR the other. Return to Comte: (see this interesting discussion:

    5 Combined Synchronic and Diachronic perspectives. Time runs horizontal and vertical just as the physical plane of economic development can advance rank and file hierarchies and strata.

    6 emphasis upon concentric baseline homeostasis instead of linear equilibrium models in open and closed systems.

    7 .A Systemic Meta-theoretical assessment foundation


  7. December 30, 2012 at 4:56 pm

    But there ARE regularities in economics, so much so as to be described as “laws”. There is the Law of Rent, and the Law of One Price. Economics itself takes place within a structure of laws, both natural laws and man-made ones. One of the assumptions behind all economic activity is that the commandment “Thou shalt not steal” is obeyed. If it is not, then the process being described is not economics but systematic theft.

    As a first priority, therefore, economics has to establish what is the basis of the rightful ownership of property. Since that is an embarrassing question, it will not be asked, and from that point on, the subject will be in trouble.

  8. December 30, 2012 at 4:57 pm

    Can a layman say something?!!! (To try to bring this back to earth?)

  9. Bruce E. Woych
    December 30, 2012 at 6:07 pm

    for Lars Syll: The Fable of The Bees: or, Private Vices, Public Benefits is essentially a fallacy of composition. See:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Fable_of_the_Bees (of interest…)

    “The poem suggests many key principles of economic thought, including division of labor and the invisible hand, seventy years before these were more thoroughly elucidated by Adam Smith.[2] John Maynard Keynes cited Mandeville to show it was “no new thing … to ascribe the evils of unemployment to … the insufficiency of the propensity to consume”,[3] a condition also known as the paradox of thrift, and central to his own theory of effective demand.”
    “The poem had appeared in 1705 and was intended as a commentary on England as Mandeville saw it. Keynes describes the poem as setting forth “the appalling plight of a prosperous community in which all the citizens suddenly take it into their heads to abandon luxurious living, and the State to cut down armanents, in the interests of Saving”.[6]“

  10. Bruce E. Woych
    December 30, 2012 at 9:21 pm

    How to re-establish economics as a realist and relevant social science :
    The Top 12 Political Fallacies of 2012 By Richard (RJ) Eskow
    How to re-establish economics as a realist and relevant social science ?

    Ironic or realist: Relevancy is residency: Out of the “top 12 POLITICAL” fallacies listed in this
    Huffington Post article by RJ Eskow…

    ………………………………….9 out of 12 are ECONOMIC!………………………………………

  11. Ken Zimmerman
    December 31, 2012 at 8:44 am

    My suggestion (for what it’s worth) is take one or two steps back. Economists, neoclassical or otherwise are too close to the situation of economics and economies as objects of study. And to bring the maligned social sciences back in I offer the following from Michel Callon’s The Laws of the Markets, “Market laws are neither in the nature of humans and societies – waiting for the scientist, like a prince charming, to wake and reveal them – nor are they constructions or artefacts invented by social sciences in an effort to improvise simple frameworks for explaining an opaque and complex reality. They account for regularities progressively enforced by the joint movement of the economy and economics, a movement that we have attempted to describe in this introduction.” In simple terms economists have for a long time been involved in setting up the relationship devices called markets. Doing this in partnership with all the other actors involved in the economy, economists never have a free hand because the other actors often push back against economists’ assertions and fabrications. This discussion is just one instance of economists (and it appears at least one non-economist) moving along the shape and content of markets. I believe many economists, politicians, business persons, manufacturers, consulting firms, NGOs, etc. might find enlightening and useful the work of Callon and the other anthropologists and sociologists involved in describing the ongoing relationships of economists and other actors through which markets of varying shapes and contents emerge. (Full disclosure: I am one of these anthropologists. Thusly, I love this blog as it is a bountiful source of research for me.)

  12. December 31, 2012 at 1:04 pm

    “My suggestion (for what it’s worth) is take one or two steps back. Economists, neoclassical or otherwise are too close to the situation of economics and economies as objects of study.” Yes, Ken; but social sciences deserve to be much maligned because they have been constructed on a basis of measurement and not an up-to-date understanding of communication and logic. Even Heribert here doesn’t seem to see the logical significance of forms changing (as when noise distorts communication or evil men use honest words as euphemisms).

    My own pennyworth on Lars’ five changes starts from the well-established if largely unknown fact that human brains provide four different types of logic, where logic is understood in the computing sense as a path rather than a relationship. There are input and output paths linked to emotional instincts and memories, which like a computer operating system activate or suppress programs [i.e. relevant memories]. There are serial-logic audio [linguistic] memory paths which index parallel-logic [primarily] visual memories to activate output [skill] memories which focus conscious sensing and direct action. An on-going logical process involves only three of these [input/modifier/output], and people differ in which three they characteristically use.

    The point at Lars’s (1) is that people differ, and the majority of us Westerners, though skilled in other ways, tend to underuse our imaginative [visual memories], and so rely on labels and recipes rather than active understanding. Likewise at (2): like children, indeed, when we don’t [yet] have an adequate understanding, we want to be told what to do: not act like [food] scientists and adapt old recipes to the materials now available. At (3) I disagree with Lars: there are laws in economics, but the only universal ones are those of logic, i.e. paths which we merely tend to stick to. The form of the economy is to a large extend determined by its communications infrastructure, as witness the largescale urbanisation and hence marketization of the world since the coming of the railways. At (4), economic hubris is indeed a problem, but I suggest Lars’s “broad-minded” needs to be interpreted as “more abstract”, i.e. treating economics as an instance of something “deeper”, as in the propositions “economics IS a control system” and “control IS a communication system”. Of course I sympathise at (5) with the need to stop doing the stupid, but only insofar as that leaves room for doing something better, which is to learn from our mistakes: in particular from Christ’s and Shannon’s ways of dealing with them, and the futility of that while we fail to pass on their difficult lessons to our children.

    Here’s looking forward to a Happier New Year!

  13. Bruce E. Woych
    December 31, 2012 at 5:50 pm


    Chris Hedges Explains How Entire Regions Within the US Are Treated Like Exploited Colonies
    A Q&A with Chris Hedges on his latest book Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt.
    December 29, 2012 |

    …. a recent interview conducted with Chris Hedges surrounding his latest book Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt :

    • Bruce E. Woych
      December 31, 2012 at 5:57 pm

      (Empirical Economics? Ethnographic Reality? …be it journalist or anthropologist; Economists must get to the TRUTH and begin an economics of Justice:
      Excerpt from the beginning of this interview says it all:

      “Emanuele: In Chapter One of your new book, Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, you describe the horrendous conditions endured by the Native American population living in Pine Ridge, South Dakota. This population earns, on average, anywhere from $2,600-$3,500 a year, with 49% of the total population living in official poverty status. However in a broad sense, and to inject a historical context, you describe the systematic destruction of Native culture and society; namely, through the practices of physical termination and cultural genocide. Can you talk about why you began this journey in South Dakota and the importance of recognizing previous national injustices?

      Hedges: Well, it’s important because that’s where the project of limitless expansion and exploitation, especially the plundering of natural resources, began. There you had the timber merchants and the railroad magnates, mine speculators, and land speculators seizing territory on the western plains and exterminated the native populations who resisted. Many of which did not even resist. Then, herding the remnants into what were originally prisoner of war camps, which then finally became tribal residencies and eventually reservations–breaking the natives capacity for self-sufficiency, while creating a culture of dependency. Remember, all of this is for profit. This became the template for which the American Empire expanded: the Philippines, Cuba and all throughout Latin America. And today, places like Iraq and Afghanistan. So that’s why we wanted to examine where this ideology first took root; where it was first formed; and what happened to these peoples, because in an age of corporate capitalism, where there are no impediments left, what happened to them, is going to happen to us. In the end, we’re all going to be herded on some form of a reservation. ”

  14. December 31, 2012 at 6:12 pm

    i’m not sure the ‘heterodox’ approach really is much different than the standard one to econ.

    i guess my economic approach might be top ask how many articles a day are produced on RWER and what is there value, along with the books, conferences, etc as compared with say, am ec review, jpe etc. One could go further and ask whether the economics profession of any stripe is any more value than, say religious institutions, clergy, etc. Exactly what do these people do? One could even say ‘cosmologists’ or ‘philosophers of language, etc.’

    i guess sermons have their value (as do elementary schools even though the latter dont really prroduce anything of research quality) but how valuable are they compared to talk radio? (i guess in a jnon ergodic world of path dependence just about any path has a chnce to be leading to the optimum, if not all of them–which is closer to my view).

    if economics is the study of what is done (utility or social welFARE max or gdp), who does it (optimal division of labor,. currency zones, sizes of countries, biodiversity), and who gets what (distribution of goods/income), conceivably maybe the lobbysists for the NRA in the usa or for lockheed martin or military contractors arer the most productive and valueable—the 1% in general. “i got 99 problems but a … is not one’ (jayz, conceivably in second class along with poets after contractors in the production of value )

  15. Steve
    December 31, 2012 at 8:32 pm

    Economics, and all human systems require re-assessment. There is truth and then there is a higher truth, meaning if that truth is not a consideration of both the temporal and human internal truth then it is at best a one eyed, half brained truth. All systems are created by Man, and hence they must meet Man honestly as a being that requires both physical and spiritual/psychological needs. Systems must serve Man, not make Man serve them. That should be the first consideration on the table.

    Wisdom must be consulted…and trusted. For wisdom is the only man conceived system which presently actually considers ALL of the things mentioned above. Wisdom integrates. Modern intellectual pursuits are inadequately integrated with Man and Wisdom. Modern societies and their systems are not well integrated at all. The domination of societies by finance is an obvious example of this.

    Truth is not well perceived by minds that have already been made up. The willingness and necessity of keeping one’s mind open is essential if truth is to be accurately perceived, and in many instances, due to the blinkering of orthodoxy, actually perceived at all.. Getting comfortable with uncertainty is therefore an essential first step in discovering Truth.

    The best thing we could do for economics and all of our systems would be to establish a new holistic science of Wisdom, the beginning of which might be the agreed upon most essential and powerful basics of Wisdom itself, and then the cultivation of getting comfortable enough with uncertainty to maintain a truly open mind about the discovery of temporal realities. That is the proper order of need. Wisdom, then science. Otherwise science itself…as we so often see becomes orthodoxy and leads onto blindness and folly. Wholeness first, and wholeness throughout. So be it.

    • Bruce E. Woych
      January 2, 2013 at 1:04 am

      Bounded Rationality: The Adaptive Toolbox
      Bounded Rationality: The Adaptive Toolbox [Paperback]
      Gerd Gigerenzer (Editor), Reinhard Selten (Editor)


      The book extends the concept of bounded rationality from cognitive tools to emotions; it analyzes social norms, imitation, and other cultural tools as rational strategies; and it shows how smart heuristics can exploit the structure of environments

      • Bruce E. Woych
        January 2, 2013 at 1:23 am

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bounded_rationality (worth reading in full)
        Intro Excerpt:
        “Bounded rationality is the idea that in decision-making, rationality of individuals is limited by the information they have, the cognitive limitations of their minds, and the finite amount of time they have to make a decision. It was proposed by Herbert A. Simon as an alternative basis for the mathematical modeling of decision making, as used in economics and related disciplines; it complements rationality as optimization, which views decision-making as a fully rational process of finding an optimal choice given the information available.[1]”

        Another way to look at bounded rationality is that, because decision-makers lack the ability and resources to arrive at the optimal solution, they instead apply their rationality only after having greatly simplified the choices available. Thus the decision-maker is a [satisficer], one seeking a satisfactory solution rather than the optimal one
        contemporary claims: “The Nobel Prize in Economics was awarded to Herbert Simon in 1978.
        ….This has led not only to new conceptual dimensions for theoretical constructions, but also to a new humanizing realism in economics, a way of taking into account and dealing with human behavior and interactions that lie at the root of all economic activity.”

        Models of Bounded Rationality: Economic Analysis and Public Policy (Volume 1) [Paperback]
        Herbert A. Simon (Author)

  16. December 31, 2012 at 8:40 pm

    Lars, re your (1), what do you make of the discussion of abstraction at http://mises.org/journals/qjae/pdf/qjae9_3_1.pdf?

  17. January 8, 2013 at 5:21 pm

    This is really good. I’m pretty much on board.

    A couple quibbles.

    1. I think math is very important for allowing people to discuss ideas precisely.

    2. On point 5, I wouldn’t *stop* making those kinds of models, I’d just reduce them to one small fraction of what gets done. Until we find what works, a diversity of approaches is best.

    • sergio
      January 9, 2013 at 4:58 am

      However, ultimately the economics boils down to the discussion of (1) reality of assumptions and (2) clarity/reality of definitions. In other words – discuss ideas realistically, rather than precisely.
      Many math addicted economists dream to find that E=MC^2 for society, and they categorically reject that every society/individual can have its own formula. Mathematics turned from the tool of inquiry/discussion to weapon of dogmatisation of ideologically biased assumptions. They believe that the support for the use of mathematics is to describe relationships between quantities. But “quanities” of what ? Economics should explain relationship between “qualities”, not “quantities”. Economics is not about accounting.
      And you are definitely wrong that mathematics is logic.

      • Steve
        January 9, 2013 at 8:28 am

        Yes, mathematics is simply a tool that if it doesn’t input all relevant factors is inaccurate or wrong. Economics is not accounting, but money IS basically accountancy. And accountancy’s rules can have very significant effects on economics. Let’s get this straight before I go any further….the mechanical entering of accounting numbers THEMSELVES in fact effects nothing, but the rules of accounting have unavoidable, ever present and negative economic and monetary effects. This cannot be denied if actually confronted.

        I also agree with you that distinguishing between theory and reality is essential, as well as the preciseness of definitions for the sake of greater clarity.

  18. Bruce E. Woych
    January 13, 2013 at 1:43 pm

    Resources worth noting:

    SSRN eLibrary Search Results
    Singapore Management University School of Law Legal Studies Research Paper Series

    View Papers: http://www.ssrn.com/link/Singapore-Mgmt-U-LEG.html
    Subscribe: http://hq.ssrn.com/jourInvite.cfm?link=Singapore-Mgmt-U-LEG

    Founded in 2007, the Singapore Management University School of Law is a young and vibrant community of academics, students and alumni whose mission is to build a collegial team of excellent researchers and teachers to nurture lawyers who will lead and serve the community with distinction. The SMU School of Law is helmed by a dynamic and international faculty with a diverse range of research interests, ranging from the private law of obligations, international trade law, international criminal justice, to note just a few. The Singapore Management University School of Law eJournal contains abstracts, works in progress, and published papers from our faculty and visiting scholars. The papers are published electronically and are available online or through email distribution.

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