What happened to the ‘American dream’?

Here’s a depressing fact: it takes longer to travel from Boston to Los Angeles today than it did 50 years ago. Getting to the airport, getting through the airport, the flight itself — just about every part of the process takes longer than it once did.  

According to New York Times senior writer David Leonhardt, this is just one example of the stagnation defining so many aspects of America’s society and economy today. From life expectancy to education outcomes to rates of income inequality, by so many measures, American society simply isn’t improving for as many Americans as rapidly as it once did. By some measures, it’s not improving at all.

In other words: the American dream is increasingly out of reach. 

Leonhardt’s newest book, “Ours Was the Shining Future: The Story of the American Dream,” explores the data and the history behind this dimming of the American dream. This spring, he came to the Watson Institute to discuss the book with Jeff Colgan, director of the Watson Institute’s Climate Solutions Lab. In this episode of Trending Globally, Colgan talks with Leonhardt about the cultural and political shifts that have contributed to this change, and about what needs to be done to make widespread prosperity attainable in the decades to come. 

Learn more about and purchase “Ours Was the Shining Future: The Story of the American Dream

Subscribe to “The Morning”, a newsletter from The New York Times

Learn more about the Watson Institute’s other podcasts


[MUSIC PLAYING] DANIEL RICHARDS: From the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University, this is Trending Globally. I'm Dan Richards. Here's a depressing fact. It takes longer to travel from Boston to Los Angeles today, in Twenty Twenty-Four, than it did 50 years ago. Getting to the airport, getting through the airport, the flight itself-- just about every part of the process takes longer.

DAVID LEONHARDT: It really, to me, is a consequence of our not investing in the future in the way that we used to.

DANIEL RICHARDS: That's New York Times senior writer David Leonhardt. And as he sees it, this is just one example of the stagnation defining so many aspects of America's society and economy today. From life expectancy to education to rates of income inequality, by so many measures, American society simply isn't improving for as many Americans as rapidly as it once did. By some measures, it's not improving at all.

In his newest book, Ours Was the Shining Future-- The Story of the American Dream, David unpacks this dimming of the American dream in the last 50 years. This spring, he came to the Watson Institute to discuss the book with Jeff Colgan, director of the Watson Institute's Climate Solutions Lab.

On this episode, which Jeff guest hosts, he and David discuss the cultural and political shifts that have contributed to this change and what needs to be done to create widespread prosperity for Americans in the decades to come. They also discuss the role of the media in our politics today. But first, they look at what happened to the American dream. Here are Jeff Colgan and David Leonhardt.


JEFF COLGAN: Thank you, David, so much for joining us at Trending Globally. You have just published this new book called Ours Was the Shining Future. Give us the core message of the book.

DAVID LEONHARDT: The core message of the book is that living standards for most of Americans have improved at an unacceptable pace over the last 50 years but that we can fix that. And it's really much more of a historical book than anything else. So I tell the story of how we had an economy in the middle decades of the 20th century that did produce reliably rising living standards for most people.

And even with all of our problems, all of the terrible racial discrimination, sexual discrimination, other forms of discrimination that we had, even with a medical system that didn't have the cures that we have today, even with all of those problems, life really did get better. It got better for rich and poor and middle class. It got better for white and Black. It got better for men and women.

Then, starting somewhere in the Nineteen Seventies or early Nineteen Eighties, life really, for people without a college degree, stopped getting reliably better. And the first chart in my book, for anyone who's skeptical of this-- in Nineteen Eighty, the United States had a fairly normal life expectancy for a rich country. You can look at the chart, and you can see we're kind of right in the mix with other parts of Western Europe and Canada and some countries in Asia.

And then starting in the Nineteen Eighties, life expectancy for Americans started growing much more slowly than in these other countries. And for the last 15 years or so, we've had the lowest life expectancy of any rich country in the world. It's not even that close anymore. We're well behind every other rich country.

And the dominant reason for that is that life expectancy for working-class Americans, which I define as people without a four-year college degree, has really slowed to an incredibly frustrating pace and was even declining before COVID, which just shouldn't happen in an advanced society.

JEFF COLGAN: I wonder if you could just give us a few other measures of things that you look at to drive home the point that life in America has not improved at the pace that we had certainly hoped it would for most of the 20th century and, in some ways, has actually gone fully into reverse.

DAVID LEONHARDT: So I highlight three main forces in the book that I think were lifting most Americans' living standards in the middle decades of the 20th century and have failed to do so at an acceptable rate. I'm not saying life is worse today than it was in Nineteen Eighty. I'm just saying that many Americans cannot reliably expect progress today.

And those three forces are power, by which I chiefly mean political power; culture, by which I chiefly mean corporate culture; and investment, by which I mostly mean government investment. Private sector investment is vital too, but that's continued. And so I'll give you one chart about each of those three.


Political power, the relationship between the share of workers who are in unions, and inequality is incredibly important. And there's been a bunch of academic research that has documented this. But you look at when inequality has been rising in our country, and it's been when labor unions have been weak and when inequality has been falling. And it's when labor unions have been strong and growing.

And I'm not saying labor unions are perfect. They're not. But you know what else is flawed? Corporations. And if we do not have flawed labor unions to check flawed corporations, we end up with really rapidly rising inequality. So that chart on unions and inequality, when I've tweeted it out, it gets a lot of attention because the relationship is just so stark.

On culture, we've all seen charts showing just how much economic inequality has grown over the last 40 or 50 years. And I've got some of those charts too. But I also make sure to include one that compares median family income with the pay of CEOs going back to Nineteen Forty. And what's striking about that is, yes, the pay of CEOs has gone up so much more than the pay of ordinary workers over the last 30 or 40 years. But in the Nineteen Forties and the '50s and the '60s, the pay of ordinary Americans was rising faster than the pay of CEOs.

And even though they could have pushed to make more money than they did-- and they could have pushed to have tax rates reduced when the highest marginal tax rates were 90%. And part of the reason they didn't, I argue, is that corporate executives in the past had a more patriotic attitude. They had a more community-focused attitude.

And if we're being honest about it, they had a less selfish and self-seeking attitude than executives today. They weren't better people than today's executives. But they existed in a culture that was focused more on our country's interests and our community's interests and less on the interests of self than the culture we have today.

And then the final topic is investment. We just used to invest more in the future as a share of the resources at our disposal than we do today. And I show federal spending on research and development as a share of GDP. And you see it really soar in the Eisenhower era and then stay high through a lot of the '60s. And it's important to me that it's Eisenhower, right? He's like a business Republican. And the opposite, when we're not investing, is what we're left with now.

The example I use to try to hammer this home is if you wake up this morning in Boston, it will take you longer to get to Los Angeles than it would have 50 years ago. You'll sit in more traffic in Boston. You have to get to the airport earlier because of security. And then-- this is really the stunning thing-- the scheduled flight time from the East Coast to the West Coast is longer today than it was 50 years ago because technology has not made flying faster, and our skies are more crowded. And then you'll land in LA, and you'll have all the hassles on that end too.

And, boy, a lot of other countries have figured out a way to speed up human beings, often through high-speed trains. And we just haven't. And it really to me is a consequence of our not investing in the future in the way that we used to.

JEFF COLGAN: So I want to talk more about the investment story. But just on the culture piece of it, I can't help but think about that movie from the Nineteen Eighties where Gordon Gekko makes a speech in the movie about greed is good. And I wonder whether what you're telling us is that that message has ultimately won out over the last 30 or 40 years, at least within some segments of our society.

DAVID LEONHARDT: I think that's right. And I think what happened is, look, for any individual, greed can be good, right? I mean, for most people, having more money is nice. You can afford things that you couldn't before.

I think part of the mistake that we made as a society is allowing this claim that if everyone pursues their self-interest to the maximum degree, that's actually good for society as a whole. And when you think about that logically, it just doesn't really feel that plausible, the idea that if we're all just trying to get the most for ourselves, it's going to be good for everyone.

And then even if you do find it plausible logically, just look at the empirical data. Our economy had a lot of problems in the '70s. So I think it was reasonable for Ronald Reagan and Milton Friedman and all these people whose stories I tell in the book to come forward and say, if we have an economy with lower taxes on rich people and fewer labor unions and fewer regulations, and we allow companies to get as large as the market will bear and not worry so much about antitrust, they said, if we do all that, it'll be better for everybody.

I actually think they genuinely believed it. I don't think they were cynically going back to the country club afterwards and saying, ha ha ha. I really think they believed it. But we now have 50 years of evidence that we can look and see, were they right? Has this economy been better for everybody?

And the answer is, it hasn't. Whether you look at economics, whether you look at life expectancy, whether you look at measures of social health, like how many kids grow up with two parents, how many people spend time behind bars, how many Americans experience chronic pain, what percentage of prime-age people are actually working, by all these measures, this "greed is good" economy that we've created really isn't better for most Americans. And so I think now it's time to look at that evidence forthrightly and say, maybe this actually is not the system that works the best for the most number of people.

JEFF COLGAN: Well, I want to come back to investment. Last weekend, I was on a family trip which seemed engineered in a lab to show your argument or at least to show the worst parts--


JEFF COLGAN: --of travel in America. Whether it's airplane delays, whether it's the limits of Amtrak and train travel, whether it's the rental car system that generates junk fees and steers customers away from electric vehicles for a variety of reasons, I mean, the whole thing just seems really kind of broken. And so I wonder, from your perspective, where do we even begin for improving transportation in America?

DAVID LEONHARDT: I mean, the good news, I guess, is that we don't have to invent something new in a lot of cases because, as you just said, other countries are doing it better than we are. So we can copy them, right?

I mean, I've taken this train from downtown Shanghai to the Shanghai airport. It took eight minutes to get me to the airport. The distance from downtown Shanghai to the Shanghai airport is larger than the distance from Times Square to LaGuardia Airport.

And if you haven't been to New York, I promise you now, you will not get from Times Square to LaGuardia Airport in eight minutes. In the middle of the night, you can do it in about 28 minutes. And at most times of day, you're probably looking at closer to an hour. So I think the first thing we should do is just learn from things that other countries have done and do it.

And, yes, there are huge parts of the United States where high-speed rail doesn't make any sense. We don't need high-speed rail in New Hampshire. We don't need it in Montana. We don't need it in Kansas. I get all that. But there are still places where it could really make a difference.

And it's not just high-speed rail, right? We can use some of the things that London has done with surge pricing with driving to make that better. We could change the way we run airports. I mean, right now, basically, we give private planes priorities that we absolutely do not need to give them in terms of getting around.

We could be tougher on airlines in all kinds of ways in terms of antitrust, in terms of regulating them. We don't have to have the government setting the price on routes the way we used to. I still think capitalism is much better than a lot of things-- at a lot of things than government regulators. But the system that we have right now, as you were saying, it just isn't working really well. And we can do better.

If I can recommend another podcast on your podcast, Jeff, I really would recommend the podcast The Big Dig. And it's about this project in Boston that I'm sure many of your listeners are familiar with, the Big Dig. The host and producer, who made it with his colleagues, he's, I think, 35 years old or so.

And he grew up in Boston always hearing about how horrible the Big Dig is, how expensive it was, how behind it was, how inefficient it was. And now as an adult, he looks around, and he thinks, oh my goodness, it makes our life so much better. We get around more quickly. The city is prettier.

And I think part of the answer to your question is, we need more big digs. And they're not going to go perfectly. And sometimes they're going to be too slow. And they're going to cost a little bit more money. And you know what? As long as you have some accountability built in, when they're done, they're amazing.

If you're in New York now, you know the Second Avenue Subway is amazing. And you know that if we could have an express subway to LaGuardia, it would meaningfully change and improve people's lives.

JEFF COLGAN: Yeah. Well, let's move off transportation for a moment and just think more broadly about public investment in the United States. As you say, it's much lower than it used to be. And if we were able to increase it again, what kinds of investments do you think are most important for laying the foundation for future American success?

DAVID LEONHARDT: We do live in a capitalist society. And I say that without lament or apology. I mean, I've been going around, and I've had a wonderful time talking about my book on college campuses, including at Brown, where you kindly hosted me. And I often will get a question from a student, which I really appreciate. Basically, well, aren't these problems you describe-- isn't this an indictment of capitalism?

And my view is it's an indictment of a certain form of capitalism, but it's not an indictment of capitalism generally. I mean, you look around the world over the last century. There are no non-capitalist societies that have delivered huge increases in living standards to people compared North Korea and South Korea. Ask why people want to leave Venezuela and Cuba. Look at the collapse of the Soviet Union.

And if you're tempted to say, what about China, which is a fair question-- it is still run by something that calls itself the Communist Party-- China's great, amazing prosperity comes after Deng Xiaoping makes the turn toward market capitalism, highly managed market capitalism, but toward market capitalism in the late Nineteen Seventies.

So a lot of the investment that we need in our society is going to come from private companies. And from a policy perspective, we don't need to worry very much about that because they will do what's in their interests, and they will pursue it. I don't think we need the government investing huge amounts of money in AI right now because the private sector sees opportunities there and is doing it.

So to some extent, what we want to say is, what are the things that we need and the private sector doesn't do enough of? And to me, that's things like infrastructure because often you can't really profit off of it in a way that the investment makes sense. It's basic science, again, because it's often so early stage that it's not exactly clear who would benefit from it.

It's educating children, in which the profit motive often doesn't get us what we need. And it's climate. And it's clean energy, which like basic science, often, we have reasons other than simply the profit motive to want to do this, to make sure that we have a planet that our grandchildren can comfortably live on.

And so when you look at those things, and you look at history, what you see is that the federal government, despite its reputation of being inefficient, actually has this glorious legacy of investing in early stage-- both research and early-stage development. The federal government built the internet. The federal government is almost entirely responsible for the semiconductor revolution. It was basically all initially military applications. The federal government funds the early-stage research that leads to almost all of the breakthrough drugs.

And so we have the systems to do this. I just think we should be doing more of it.

JEFF COLGAN: A lot of the things that you point to-- and I completely agree with them. But a lot of the things that you point to are the same areas that we needed to invest in previous times of like childhood education and public research and development, infrastructure spending. And that's all before you get to the great challenge of our times, which is climate change. And we need a whole new set of investments on top of that.

DAVID LEONHARDT: Yes. And look, let's say President Biden deserves a lot of credit here because-- not just him but primarily him-- he has overseen a real renaissance in the amount of investing that the federal government does in semiconductor factories and funding some of that stuff that wouldn't happen. Some of that's national security. We want to make sure it's here so that our global rivals cannot cut us off. But some of it is also about scientific development.

And by the way, I don't think we should apologize for national security reasons for investment. That's one of the ways why we're the home to the computer industry, and other parts of the world are not. It's because we funded it for the Cold War.

And then, obviously, we also have infrastructure, which is a bipartisan bill that Biden signed. Biden has accomplished more bipartisan legislation than I frankly expected was possible. Both the semiconductor bill, which was able to happen in part because of concerns about China, and the infrastructure bill-- because people like infrastructure-- were passed on a bipartisan basis.

And then the climate bill, which was passed on a partisan party line basis, that is really the most significant climate bill in this country's history. When you and I were talking about it, Jeff, you said you think it might be the most significant piece of climate legislation that any country has passed in the world.

JEFF COLGAN: It may well be.

DAVID LEONHARDT: Yeah. I mean, it's just a phenomenal amount of money going toward research and development that we wouldn't otherwise have.

And I just want to make one point here about not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. For reasons that I guess I understand, but I think are wrongheaded, a lot of people on the political left have decided that Joe Manchin is somehow a great enemy of progress. And there was just this viral clip where some person at Harvard ran up to him and started cursing at him.

Joe Manchin figured out a way to win a Senate seat as a Democrat in a state that votes for Republicans in the presidential election by a margin of 30 points, 30 points. There is no one in the United States Senate like Joe Manchin who wins a state that goes as far as that state does in the opposite direction from his own party. And the reason Joe Biden was able to sign that incredible climate bill is because when it passed by one vote, he had a Democratic vote from West Virginia. And Joe Manchin voted for the bill.

And so I just think it's important to remember that the path to progress usually doesn't come through purism. It usually doesn't come by making coalitions only of people who you agree with on everything. It comes by building big-tent coalitions. And I just think when you pair your point that this might be the most significant piece of climate legislation ever passed with the fact that it couldn't have passed without Joe Manchin voting for it, given the politics of the moment, I think Joe Manchin's reputation on his climate legacy should be very different from what it is in corners of the political left today.

JEFF COLGAN: Well, that's a point well taken. And we have started to move into politics already. But let me ask a little bit about your employer, The New York Times, and the role of the media. And I wonder to what extent you think the Times and the media more generally shapes public opinion rather than simply reflecting it.

DAVID LEONHARDT: We certainly shape opinion as well as reflect it. But I sometimes think we do it less than many readers think we do. [LAUGHS] I actually think Trump's campaign in Twenty Sixteen is an example of both halves of this. So did the media-- and I guess I'm thinking more here of TV stations than newspapers, but I can be critical about newspapers as well, if you want, in a minute. Did the media give too much airtime to Trump? Absolutely.

You probably remember this during the primaries. Trump would be doing one of his stream-of-consciousness things for 45 minutes, where he was just saying things that no presidential candidate would say before. And the cable news networks would show it in its entirety rather than showing Marco Rubio or Chris Christie or Ted Cruz or whatever because Donald Trump is more entertaining than those other people, right? But that was really problematic because it gave Trump a lot of free airtime.

Now, could the media have made Donald Trump go away simply by ignoring him? And really, do you want that anyway? Like a bunch of private media organizations decide, we're going to totally ignore that candidate? I don't think, in the age of the internet, we could have done that.

Having said that, I think it's really important that we be reflective about things we can do better. And an example of this that I have thought about is I think we in the media, including the print media, paid too much attention to Hillary Clinton's emails in Twenty Sixteen.

Now, I think they were a legitimate story. We had a secretary of state who basically was trying to shield her communications from normal public scrutiny by doing it on a private email server. It connected to a long history of her and her husband kind of skirting the rules in all kinds of little ways. That's a legitimate story. And I make no apologies for the fact that we covered it.

But I do think that we as a media paid too much attention to that story relative to its import. At the end of the campaign, Gallup did a survey. And the number one thing that Americans reported hearing about Hillary Clinton's campaign was her emails. Surely that can't be right. It was not the most important thing about her.

And I think that's a good example of something where we did make a mistake. And the version of that this time around is President Biden's age. It's a real issue. It's not simply the same as Trump's age, although we have a responsibility to cover both and write about the ways that Trump sometimes doesn't really sound coherent. But if you just look at the two, Biden both is and looks older than Trump. And voters say that they have more concerns about Biden's age than Trump's. So it's a legitimate story.

But I do worry that we could make the mistake of turning it into a version of Hillary's emails and just writing about it constantly. I don't think every story about Biden should become a story about age. And then that does become a self-fulfilling prophecy of, well, we hear people are thinking about his age. But it's impossible to know how much of that is because we can't stop talking about his age.

JEFF COLGAN: I guess one way that we mentally assign importance of issues is by repetition, right, that this is something-- like we know from pedagogical studies that repetition helps us learn things. And so when we see repetition in the media, then I think that it tells us something about importance. And so I do wonder about how you think and the Times editorial staff think more broadly about assessing the importance of a story in relation to how many times it gets repeated, or some version of it gets repeated.

And so, for instance, as you've already said, Joe Biden's old age is unquestionably an issue. No question about that. Donald Trump's autocratic tendencies, statements, and track record is also an issue. How do you think about covering those issues in a way that is consistent with your values as a journalist and with the Times' values as a publisher?

DAVID LEONHARDT: So I'm in charge of only one part of The New York Times.

JEFF COLGAN: [LAUGHS] And here I'm grilling you like you're in charge of all of it.


JEFF COLGAN: That's not what I mean.

DAVID LEONHARDT: I don't mind. No, and I don't mind. I absolutely don't mind that at all. I understand I'm a representative of The New York Times. But the part of the Times that I know best and the part of the Times that I have the most direct influence on is "The Morning," which is this newsletter. It's our flagship newsletter, our main newsletter. You don't have to be a New York Times subscriber to get it.

JEFF COLGAN: Which I read every morning, so thank you for doing it, David. Thank you.

DAVID LEONHARDT: Thank you. I love my job. It's a really fun job. And I was talking about how much I love newspapers generally. In some ways, what we're trying to do is create a digital newspaper. It comes out only once a day. We're not going to update people every 10 minutes. I actually think most people don't want to be updated every 10 minutes about what's going on.


DAVID LEONHARDT: And it's an email, so it's a lot smaller than the old print newspaper. But it's filled with links. So if you want to go in and see the different parts of The New York Times, you can.

And I would tell you that I think Donald Trump's autocratic tendencies are a substantially more important story than Joe Biden's age. And I welcome anyone holding me accountable to that statement by comparing how much we pay attention to Joe Biden's age in "The Morning" and how much we pay attention to Donald Trump's autocratic tendencies in "The Morning."

And I think the answer-- I am confident the answer is we pay much more attention to Donald Trump's autocratic tendencies. But if any readers think that I'm wrong about that, we list our email in the newsletter every day. And I welcome critique and feedback.

JEFF COLGAN: I want to circle back to the core of your book and leave our conversation on this question, which is, you often describe yourself, both today and when you were here on campus at Brown, as an optimist. And I want to ask you, what makes you optimistic about the future of our country?

DAVID LEONHARDT: I am optimistic that we can fix our problems, and I think I'm more optimistic than many people are about that. I don't pretend to be fully optimistic that we will fix our problems. So I want to be clear about that.

I am optimistic that we can fix our problems because I actually think our political system, our democratic system, has a much stronger and better record of success than many people realize. People think of the political system as rigged, and they think nothing can ever change. And I understand why people feel that way. But just think about how much has changed. Even if our transportation system hasn't changed in my lifetime, just think about how much has changed.

So if you want to go back a full century, we've had the labor movement that helped create mass prosperity unlike any other country. We had, before that, the women's suffrage movement. We had the civil rights movement. We had the women's rights movement. We had the disability rights movement of the Nineteen Seventies, which was gloriously successful. Those were all grassroots movements that changed our country. And I think people sometimes think of them as something from the distant past, but they're not only from the distant past.


In my lifetime, we have had a grassroots movement, the gay rights movement, that has changed this country and changed the lived experience, I'm guessing, of every family of anyone listening to this podcast-- the fact that people can get married no matter whom they love. That wasn't inevitable. That was a grassroots political movement that worked really hard.

I know this is something that if you're on or near a college campus, you probably think is a terrible development, which is the overturning of Roe v. Wade. But that is also a grassroots movement. When the Supreme Court passed Roe v. Wade 50 years ago, social conservatives didn't respond by saying, the system is rigged. We can never change it. It's doomed. All these liberals with their money.

They organized, and they took over the Republican Party. And they won local elections. And they got enough judges appointed that, over 50 years, they got the law changed. Whether you think that's a terrible development, as most Americans do, or whether you think it's a good development, as a meaningful minority of Americans do, that is a victory to grassroots politics.

And so what I would say is, I believe we really do have the ability to create an economy and a society that works better for most people by making it easier for workers to join labor unions, by making health care more efficient and less expensive, by making education more accessible for people. Through all these things I think the problem is that we haven't had grassroots movements that have really been devoted to accomplishing that. Our grassroots movements have been focused on other things in recent years. And I think if we did have a grassroots movement that was focused on that, it really could succeed.

And there are even little exceptions that help prove the rule. Even red and purple states have passed increases in the minimum wage. Even red and purple states have expanded Obamacare and made it easier for people to have health insurance. And so when people do commit themselves to changing policies using grassroots politics, it can happen.


And so I really believe, whether it's on any subject we've been talking about, Jeff, people's ability to join labor unions, the amount of investment we have in our society, the kind of education people can get, the kind of income they can have or the kind of health insurance they can have or what it will take to build a clean energy future, I believe that grassroots politics in our political system has the capability to change all these things. And I just hope that as a society and particularly younger people can do a better job changing those things than my generation has done.

JEFF COLGAN: David, thank you so much for joining us today. And thanks again for coming to Brown University so recently. And I hope that you'll come back and visit us again sometime very soon.

DAVID LEONHARDT: Thank you so much for having me, Jeff.

DANIEL RICHARDS: This episode of Trending Globally was produced by me, Dan Richards, and Zach Hirsch. It was engineered by Eric Emma. If you want to learn more about or purchase Ours Was the Shining Future-- The Story of the American Dream or subscribe to "The Morning Newsletter" from the New York Times, we'll have links to both of those in the show notes.

If you like Trending Globally, please leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen. And if you haven't subscribed to the show already, please do that too. If you have any ideas for guests or topics, send us an email at trendingglobally@brown.edu. Again, that's all one word, trendingglobally@brown.edu. We'll be back in two weeks with another episode of Trending Globally. Thanks.


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