Biden Fighting the Last War

Is the administration governing like it's 2009?

Source: The White House

In “This Presidency Isn’t Turning Out as Planned,” Ezra Klein devotes 1329 words to what at first struck me as two separate columns. But there is a connecting theme.

After a lead noting that the Biden administration is staffed by mostly the same people as the Obama administration, just in different chairs, Klein observes,

The problems Biden is facing are an almost perfect inversion of the problems Obama faced. The Obama administration was bedeviled by crises of demand. The Biden administration is struggling with crises of supply.

For years, every conversation I had with Obama administration economists was about how to persuade employers to hire and consumers to spend. The 2009 stimulus was too small, and while we avoided a second Great Depression, we sank into an achingly slow recovery. Democrats carried those lessons into the Covid pandemic. They met the crisis with overwhelming fiscal force, joining with the Trump administration to pass the $2.2 trillion CARES Act and then adding the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, the trillion-dollar infrastructure bill and the assorted Build Back Better proposals on top. They made clear that they preferred the risks of a hot economy, like inflation, to the threat of mass joblessness.

“We want to get something economists call full employment,” Biden said in May. “Instead of workers competing with each other for jobs that are scarce, we want employers to compete with each other to attract work.”

That they have largely succeeded feels like the best-kept secret in Washington. 

Now, I’d argue that, as is so common in politics, the perceived failure is self-induced. Much like Obama, Biden over-promised and under-delivered. Yes, the economy has come roaring back at a face much faster than predicted and, yes, Biden deserves some credit for that. But, having staked so much of his first year in office on what looks to be a Quixotic effort to pass BBB, it looks like a failure because the administration didn’t achieve the massive thing that it spent so long telling us is essential.

Still, Klein is right here:

It is easy to imagine the wan recovery we could’ve had if the mistakes of 2009 and 2010 had been repeated. Instead, we met the pandemic with tremendous, perhaps excessive, fiscal force. We fought the recession and won. The problems we do have shouldn’t obscure the problems we don’t.

Strangely, though, he soon pivots to what seems like a completely different topic:

But we do have problems. Year-on-year inflation is running at 7 percent, its highest rate in decades, and Omicron has shown that the Biden administration wasted months of possible preparation. It is not to blame for the new variant, but it is to blame for the paucity of tests, effective masks and ventilation upgrades.

And the rest of the piece weaves in and around these two issues: the supply chain and COVID. And, unlike most pundits, Klein doesn’t blame the former on the latter.

His administration is suffering right now from directly mismanaging Covid supplies. It did an extraordinary job in its first months, flooding the country with vaccines. Today, any adult who wants one, or three, can get the shots. But vaccines aren’t the only public health tool that matters, and there was every reason to believe the Biden administration knew it. The American Rescue Plan had about $20 billion for vaccine distribution, but it had $50 billion to expand testing and even more than that to retrofit classrooms so teachers and children alike would feel safe. Where did that money go?

Getting the pandemic supply chain right would help ease every other supply chain, too. If Americans could move about their lives more confidently, they could buy services instead of things, and if companies could test and protect their work forces more effectively, they could produce and ship more goods.

But the Biden administration hasn’t fully embraced its role as an economic planner. When Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, was asked about testing shortages in December, she shot back, “Should we just send one to every American?”

Psaki’s snark soon became Biden’s policy. The administration is launching a website where any family can request four free tests. That’s a start, but no more than that. For rapid testing to work, people need to be able to do it constantly. But because the administration didn’t create the supply of tests it needed months ago, there aren’t enough tests for it or anyone else to buy now. Part of this reflects the ongoing failure of the Food and Drug Administration to approve many of the tests already being sold in Europe.

The same is true, I’d argue, about masks. There’s simply no reason every American can’t pick up an unlimited supply of N95s and KN95s at every post office, library and D.M.V. Instead, people are buying counterfeit N95s on Amazon and wearing cloth masks that do far less to arrest spread. Now the Biden administration is moving toward supplying masks. But more needs to be done: How about ventilation? How about building the vaccine production capacity needed to vaccinate the world and prevent future strains from emerging? How about building capacity to produce more antiviral pills so that the next effective treatment can ramp up more quickly?

These are all good questions. Obviously, it would have been swell if we had a competent, serious President in office between December 2019 and noon on January 20, 2021 when the pandemic first hit. We would surely be much, much further ahead in so many ways had that been the case. But Biden will have been in office a full year come Thursday; he’s rightly deserving of a lot of blame at this point for what hasn’t been done.

That N95 masks were the gold standard has been apparent since the beginning and other developed countries were distributing free masks and testing kits to citizens almost two years ago. Given the massive amount that we’ve allocated to this crisis, it’s simply inexcusable that we haven’t done so by now. (And, again, that’s largely on Trump but Biden can’t escape blame this far in.)

Ditto upgrading air filtration and circulation in public buildings, certainly including our schools. That’s a shovel-ready project if ever there was one and it would have substantial public health benefits even apart from COVID for years to come.

To the extent that the two pieces are related, it seems very much like this administration came in ready to fight the last war. They treated 2021 like it was 2009 and were determined not to make the same mistakes. Instead, they made different ones. Which, all things being equal, is preferable.

Klein closes:

For decades, Democrats and Republican administrations alike believed the market would manage supply. We live in the wreckage of that worldview. But it held for so long that the U.S. government has lost both the muscle and the confidence needed to manage supply, at least when it comes to anything other than military spending. So Biden’s task now is clear: to build a government that can create supply, not just demand.

This may not be the presidency Biden prepared for, but it’s the one he got.

I’m not sure that’s right, though. Even under Trump, who undermined the fight against COVID by spending too long pretending it wasn’t a big deal, we got Operation Warp Speed and its massive investment in finding and producing a vaccine. While others did the same thing, the result was the production of a number of viable alternatives in record time and the capacity to produce them in short order. While distribution was wonkier than one would have liked in the early weeks, the problem was sorted out relatively quickly and, as Klein has already noted, we are, if anything, oversupplied now.

And, depending on how one looks at the problem, overhauling filtration systems across the land is as much a demand problem as a supply problem. The government could easily increase demand by legislation or regulation mandating higher standards or by allowing businesses who upgrade to increase capacity.

FILED UNDER: Economics and Business, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Sleeping Dog says:

    Klein’s column is pretty much the same column that I’ve read after every first year presidency since Carter. It likely happened to Nixon as well, but I was still in high school in 68 and occupied by other things. It doesn’t mean Klein and others are wrong, but year one struggles are common and all but G.H.W. Bush and Carter recovered. Trump had his first year issues as well, though it was his 2,3 and 4th year issues that made him a one termer.

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  2. Cheryl Rofer says:

    Like so much commentary on the pandemic, both Ezra and James turn a blind eye to the concerted efforts of the Republican Party to keep the virus spreading. It’s hard to recall, but we were on a vaccinated trajectory to a better life back in June, when the Republicans ramped up the anti-vaccine propaganda. Yes, Delta came along at about that time, but modelers (and my sense of things as a modeler) say that it was behavior much more than variants that is driving this disaster.

    And oh golly, look. Ezra and James are taking the bait and going along with the Republican strategy to blame Biden!

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  3. Kathy says:

    @Cheryl Rofer:

    Case numbers and hospitalizations were dropping elsewhere, too, around June. That’s when Mexico City went to “green” in the traffic light system of COVID management, meaning many restrictions were eased. Vaccinations then were not as high as in the US. I got my second dose on June 2nd, and vaccinations for the age group 40-49 started by mid-June.

    Yes, Delta came along at about that time, but modelers (and my sense of things as a modeler) say that it was behavior much more than variants that is driving this disaster.

    That I agree with. But it goes beyond vaccinations. When restrictions first eased here to “green” in June, lots of people stopped wearing masks, never mind engaging in more social activities, which along with the arrival of Delta really drove the spread.

    We’re seeing the same with Omicron now. People assume their vaccine is an absolute shield against infection, and stop taking precautions. Now we’ve had two more cases in our department. So we’re finally getting tested again (my last test was in March 2021, the day before I checked into the hospital for hernia repair).

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  4. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    The government could easily increase demand by legislation or regulation mandating higher standards or by allowing businesses who upgrade to increase capacity.

    Paging SCOTUS, paging SCOTUS. Please pick up the white courtesy lawsuit at desk 3.

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  5. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Kathy: “We’re seeing the same with Omicron now. People assume their vaccine is an absolute shield against infection, and stop taking precautions.”

    Still, I see their point. As quite a few even here have pointed out, it’s not much of a vaccine if I still have to wear masks in crowded places, socially distance, and can’t even go back to licking doorknobs. What was the point?

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  6. Cheryl Rofer says:

    @Kathy: Could not agree more. It’s all the behaviors, including the good liberals who couldn’t wait to have lunch with their friends in a closed, poorly ventilated restaurant. But the Republicans drove it for political gain.

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  7. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Sleeping Dog:
    Credited to many people, there’s the saying, Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt. To which newspapers retort: weekly, 700 word column.

    The first columnist to write, “You know what? I got nothin’. I’ll try again next week,” would be proclaimed the King of all Pundits.

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  8. Scott F. says:

    There’s an old saw in performance management that states you get what you measure. Perhaps the issue isn’t the tactics of managing the economy, but the yardstick.

    Inflation strikes me as a very poor measure of success right now (especially year over year inflation considering where the country was last December). Follow-on effects of the pandemic have resulted in a massive amount of pent up demand ahead of supply chain ramp up and higher wages due to labor’s stronger position as businesses get back to business. Inflation is to be expected, is it not? Would we want to trade poor sales and poor salaries to keep prices in check?

    Higher wages are ahead of inflation in many sectors, the market is way up, unemployment is way down – the economic story is more good than bad. COVID is a moving target with Omicron moving so fast researchers can’t keep up. How was the CDC supposed to predict which ways the Omicron mutations would behave differently than Delta? I’ll take science driven pandemic response with the full attention of the federal government over the alternative.

    James argues that it is common in politics for perceived failure to be self-induced. I would say “perceived” is to be the more operative part of the current political situation than the “self-induced” part.

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  9. JKB says:

    Biden is governing like it’s 1973. The Obama admin retreads are retrying their 2009 policies. The mix is not pretty, but now they’ve revived Nixon’s enemies list. Although Biden just put near half Americans on that list in his Atlanta speech.

    So Biden’s task now is clear: to build a government that can create supply, not just demand.

    So government control of the means of production. Nice. That worked so well in the Soviet Union, when Britain was the sick man of Europe, in Venezuela more recently.

    Wait, we’ve seen this before. This “Dictatorial, Anti-Democratic and Socialist Character of Interventionism”

    If the government, faced with this failure of its first intervention, is not prepared to undo its interference with the market and to return to a free economy, it must add to its first measure more and more regulations and restrictions. Proceeding step by step on this way it finally reaches a point in which all economic freedom of individuals has disappeared. Then socialism of the German pattern, the Zwangswirtschaft of the Nazis, emerges.

    von Mises, Ludwig (1947). Planned Chaos

  10. Michael Reynolds says:

    @JKB:
    A boring and inaccurate slippery slope argument.

    Any movement in any direction can be the start of a slippery slope. To prove your – sorry, Mises’ – point, you’d need to show how Americans have lost their economic freedom due to government regulation, and you can’t, because it never happened.

    You can’t even make an honest case that actual socialism limits economic freedom. See: Sweden.

    The reality is that you cannot have a developed, prosperous nation without government being involved in placing limits on capitalism. For reference see: every developed country on earth.

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  11. gVOR08 says:

    Most recessions occur because the Fed sees that the economy is going well, people are making money and enjoying life, and occasionally some prole gets a real raise. The Fed worries that if this continues, we’ll have inflation, the bugaboo of the moneyed class, so they raise rates, the economy tanks, the Fed goes “oopsie” and lowers rates, and the economy recovers quickly since the money, the plant, and the workers are all still there. 2008 was, as Dr. K endlessly explained, a “balance sheet” recession. The banking system essentially collapsed and a whole lot of money went “poof”. Dr. K predicted a slow “L shaped” rather than “V shaped” recovery. And indeed it was so. The 2020 recession was an odd ball driven by COVID. But as with an interest rate recession, money, plant, and workers (mostly) were all still there. It was pretty much a given that recovery would be quick with COVID, for economic purposes, largely gone.

    The supply chain is immensely complex. Over decades, millions of workers, tens of thousands of warehouses, millions of trucks, road and rail lines, port facilities, etc., etc., have adapted to changes in demand and supply. COVID threw a monkey wrench into it and it was a given that it would take time for everything to shuffle back into place to have the right number of empty shipping containers at Chinese toy factories, Chinese locomotives in place to haul them to ports where ships were arriving just in time to be loaded and sail (very slowly) to the ports of LA and Long Beach where docks were opening up for them and trucks and truckers were arriving to haul them to a thousand properly staffed distribution centers ready to load other tucks with drivers headed for Des Moines and everywhere else. Sorting something like this out is something the market does well, given time.

    None of this has much of anything to do with Biden. But compared to TFG and other GOPs in the wings, I’ll give him huge credit for not screwing things up.

    In the spring TFG was gone, vaccination was proceeding apace, the economy was recovering, and all was well with the world. Biden failed to anticipate the combined effect of Delta, rock-headed vaxx resistance, and Omicron. In fairness, did anyone else anticipate them?

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  12. gVOR08 says:

    @Scott F.:

    James argues that it is common in politics for perceived failure to be self-induced. I would say “perceived” is to be the more operative part of the current political situation than the “self-induced” part.

    Indeed. I glanced at Political Wire this morning. I swear Biden is getting worse press for not being perfect than TFG got for deliberately screwing everything up.

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  13. Raoul says:

    Ezra Klein writes a column that can be written for any administration: everyone over promises. Also he is selective with his numbers, real inflation is actually lower than stated and heading lower. I do believe that Biden has mishandled some aspects of the pandemic but the cold brittle truth is that in the current social climate the virus is going to do what’s is going to do, there is simple not enough will in the population (in a pandemic 25% of us have veto power to any offered solution). I think that many republicans thought democrats were exaggerating the pandemic back when it started and their current behavior is a form of revenge. From Ebola to SARS, republicans have always viewed diseases through partisan lens so I guess we should not be too surprised at their current posture even when some say COVID is killing over a thousand Republican voters a day.

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  14. Raoul says:

    @gVOR08: I agree. The press is an embarrassment.

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  15. ImProPer says:

    @JKB:

    “So government control of the means of production. Nice. That worked so well in the Soviet Union, when Britain was the sick man of Europe, in Venezuela more recently.”

    You’ve been posting in bad faith here for quite awhile now. Do you seriously think any of the regulars here are unaware of this? As to what you seem to imply with your above post, Soviet Union bad, I agree, and Nazis bad, I also agree. Now as far as a cogent argument as to what is going on in the USA today, do you have one? You are critical of Obama, Biden, and the Democrats, fair enough, but how do you feel about TFG and the GOP? How do they fare in your purported free market Utopia?
    In your post you shared a quote, in the same spirit I would like to share one with you. Personally I see America decaying into a reactionary ochlocracy, bent on taking down the intellectual class, before becoming totalitarian.

    “To be surprised, to wonder, is to begin to understand. This is the sport, the luxury, special to the intellectual man. The gesture characteristic of his tribe consists in looking at the world with eyes wide open in wonder. Everything in the world is strange and marvelous to well-open eyes.”
    José Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses

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  16. Dude Kembro says:

    @gVOR08: The media is repeating its 2015-16 failure, holding the Democrat to impossibly high standards while letting chaosmongering kamikaze Republicans skate.

    It’s schizophrenic. We trashed Hillary as uninspiring and lacking vision for her stubborn practicality and refusal to overpromise, now we’re trashing Biden for overpromising. LOL wut?

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  17. Dude Kembro says:

    @Raoul:
    Biden’s political problems are not due to overpromising, inflation (which he exaggerates), school ventilation, or testing. They’re due to exhausted frustration with the persistence of this pandemic. People are tired of masking in gyms and stores, tired of cancellations and hoop-jumping. But this malaise was inevitable once the media’s Emailghazigatepalooza witch hunt ensured that we got Trump.

    COVID is going to run its course. And when its finished killing those its going to kill, we’ll slowly get a new normal, likely this summer. Wonder what the press will find to bash Biden for then.

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  18. Dude Kembro says:

    @Sleeping Dog: Inflation is a worldwide problem that will ease when supply chain issues created by pandemic-induced labor gaps get sorted. Millions dropped out of the labor force virtually overnight: they died, they’re COVID injured, they became stay-at-home caregivers, they retired, etc. Biden can’t magically solve a global labor disruption at that scale.

    As to Klein’s other criticisms, he’s pretending hindsight is foresight. Most thought we’d reach herd immunity via vaccination sometime last year. There was no need for widespread at-home testing or fear of yet another winter surge disrupting schools. Even so, Biden did make sure there was $50 billion in the Recovery Act to retrofit schools for safe opening and $20 billion for testing.

    As Biden said, it’s now the job of state and local governments to use that money for intended purposes, a statement for which he was predictably slammed. My state and city got it done: our schools are wobbly but open and there’s (literally) free mobile testing sites on our streets.

    Not Biden’s fault states and municipalities, including ones led by people who lie about California’s competence, can’t or don’t want to get it done. Even Trump is surprised to see the right embrace hard-core antivaxxing and go full blown pro-COVID. Did Klein also forsee DeathSantis critizing Trump for the March 2020 lockdown-lite? Come on, Ezra.

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  19. Gustopher says:

    @Scott F.:

    COVID is a moving target with Omicron moving so fast researchers can’t keep up. How was the CDC supposed to predict which ways the Omicron mutations would behave differently than Delta? I’ll take science driven pandemic response with the full attention of the federal government over the alternative.

    The likelihood of another variant was extremely high, and for it to become dominant it would have to change to either evade current defenses or be more transmissible.

    In either case, that means getting more and better PPE available, retrofitting for increased ventilation and increasing testing supply (hoping that the tests continue to work). Increasing hospital capacity would be great, but we may have hit a limit — although I would look at allowing veterinarians to help out.

    And when it became apparent that Republicans were pro-covid, it was also apparent that the next variant was going to hit hard because we couldn’t just vaccinate our way out of it.

    I’d give the administration a B or so — nothing actively harmful, lots of stuff good, a lot of room to do better.

    And, I hate to say this, but Biden hasn’t used the Bully Pulpit well. Where are the prime time addresses? Where is the clear statement to the nation that our options are to either try to vaccinate our way out, wear protective gear, or watch a lot of people die as hospitals are overrun?

    I want Biden to tell people to call their Congress Critters and Governors. I want Biden to do so himself, on national TV so people see that it’s easy. (It’s also good politics, since once you get someone to do that, they’re more personally invested and will remember next election cycle)

    I don’t think Green Laternism works, but there’s a lot to be said about treating a national emergency like a national emergency.

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  20. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    You can’t even make an honest case that actual socialism limits economic freedom. See: Sweden.

    Yes, but remember that one of von Mises’ less-advertised theories was that when reality does not conform to to the rules of economics as he surmised them to be, it was because reality is wrong.

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  21. wr says:

    @Michael Reynolds: “You can’t even make an honest case that actual socialism limits economic freedom. See: Sweden.”

    I just booked a rapid PCR test at a clinic in Stockholm for the middle of February, the day before I fly back to the US.

    I have yet to be able to book an appointment for a similar test in NYC for the day before I fly out of here.

    What a socialist hellhole!

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  22. Monala says:

    @Gustopher: didn’t Biden already give that speech, and got slammed on both the left and right for his comments about the upcoming winter of illness and death among the unvaccinated?

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  23. Jax says:

    I don’t see much use for the bully pulpit. Right wing media what it is, all it is is an opportunity for them to snag specific clips and edit them for people like JKB and John430, who think he has dementia. It doesn’t matter how good he sounds live, they’ll edit it to match their “Sleepy Joe” narrative.

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  24. gVOR08 says:

    @Jax: As they did with Obama. No matter how many times he was brilliant ex tempore, he was an uppity … who couldn’t speak without speech writers and a teleprompter.

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  25. Gustopher says:

    @Monala: A daytime conference, wearing a mask so you can’t see the mixture of compassion and anger, read off of index cards in front of him on the table.

    He looked like an old man reading a book report. It wasn’t a compelling visual and most people who noticed just got snippets of transcript.

    And if a speech writer was anywhere near those remarks, they need to be fired and better speech writers brought in.

    Symbols matter, and he didn’t use any of them. If the country faces a grave threat, Oval Office is the right symbol. One of his strengths in communicating is that he wears his heart on his sleeve, and he’s genuine — get everyone out of the room so we can see his face.

    The presidency is weak if congress won’t support the presidency. And many things are delegated to the states. But, the president also has the ability to make news and dominate news cycles.

    Does it work? Maybe not. But if his presidency is going to be judged on anything, it’s going to be covid (and the coming war with the sheep or whatever), so it’s dumb not to try.

    I don’t know whether it’s better to say “the Republicans are good people, but they’re wrong” or “the Republicans are good people but they’re lying and I guess that means they’re not good people, but hey, this is the first time they’ve had a plan for shoring up social security in ages”, but use all the tools to get the message out. Over and over again. Show that he’s on top of things.

    I live in lefty circles. The only criticism I heard from the left was “louder, please, the morons in the back didn’t hear you.”

  26. Gustopher says:

    @Jax: Then you give up on one of the tools of the presidency.

    @gVOR08: Keep in mind that Obama won re-election despite the fact that he was an uppity ni-clang who was only able to read off a teleprompter.

    Overall, it’s not enough to be doing things, you have to be seen doing things. Trumpknew this and ran his White House to give that appearance, even though the things he was doing were often stupid, like shining a light up his butt (you think he didn’t try?), or at least suggesting it.

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  27. Lounsbury says:

    @gVOR08: A perfect illustration, this comment, why the Left needs to be kept away from central banks, as their version of conspiracy mongering delusion (different than the Right side conspiracy delusions) will rerun the late 1960s early 1970s policy errors that occured across almost all major economies.

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