Looking High and Low for Sources of Economic Growth

High-Skilled Immigration in a Global Labor Market

High-skilled immigrants are sexy.  By definition, they possess talents that are rare relative to the skills possessed by the bulk of workers in both developing and developed countries.  High-skilled immigrants, therefore, stand apart from other immigrants as well as from most workers in destination countries

Government officials and the general public – largely failing to think seriously about economics and, hence, defaulting into a mercantilist interpretation of the economy – are more prone to tolerate, or even to encourage, the in-migration of high-skilled workers than of low-skilled workers.  High-skilled immigrants, after all, seem better armed to help a domestic economy “win” its economic “competition” against other economies.  Not only do these high-skilled workers, unlike low-skilled workers, directly perform high-tech feats for the home team, they are less likely to be loafers who drain the home team of the resources it needs to sustain itself and to compete successfully against foreign rivals.

So while the modern welfare state – by turning a great deal of private wealth into a common-pool resource – continues to intensify nationalist suspicions of ‘outsiders,’ this ‘anti-foreigner’ effect is somewhat moderated when the discussion turns from “immigrants” to “high-skilled immigrants.”

This moderating effect is good, but not unqualifiedly so.  It is good insofar as it does in fact result in greater ease of people to move freely across political borders in response to economic conditions.  As several of the empirical analyses in High-Skilled Immigration in a Global Labor Market make clear, economic conditions do in fact work in predictable ways on the pattern of international migration of labor.

But the qualification is this: a focus on the (very real) benefits of a liberalized policy toward high-skilled immigrants removes attention from the (very real) benefits of a liberalized policy toward low-skilled immigrants.  Put differently, treating the immigration of high-skilled workers separately misleadingly suggests that a categorical distinction separates high-skilled immigrants from low-skilled immigrants.

In fact, though, no such categorical distinction exists – either in theory or in practice.

The non-distinction here is more than the fact that workers’ skills are arrayed along a spectrum from unskilled to the extraordinarily highly skilled, with no bright line separating high-skilled workers from the rest.  And this non-distinction is also more than the reality that a person possessing a rare talent is not necessarily a worker possessing a talent that is in high demand at a high wage – that is, a worker possessing a talent that other market participants will pay handsomely for that worker to exercise.  (Someone who, say, can sing every Beatles’ song backwards possesses a rare talent, but that talent is unlikely to command a high market wage.)

The non-distinction is chiefly the fact that low-skilled workers are no less capable than are high-skilled workers of producing net value – and of fueling economic growth – in their destination countries.

Consider a simple example.  Suppose that high-skilled immigrant Lee produces, by virtue of his being now in the United States, a new piece of agricultural technology that generates a net increase of $100 million in agricultural output over, say, 50 years.  That is, after deducting Mr. Lee’s salary and other expenses, as well as deducting all other costs of creating and using his new technology, the net increase in the value of agricultural output in the U.S. over these 50 years is $100 million.

Mr. Lee contributed.  He contributed a lot.  We should all applaud him and celebrate his coming to America.

But suppose also that 200 low-skilled immigrants – Gonzales, Perez, Ramirez, and many of their relatives and friends – produce, by virtue of being now in the United States, a net increase in the value of agricultural output of $100 million over the same 50 years.  These low-skilled immigrants produce this added output, of course, not so much with brilliant brain power but, rather, with more mundane – much less sexy – back and arm and hand power.  And as a result, in comparison with the market rewards that Mr. Lee will reap from his productive efforts, each of these 200 low-skilled immigrants will reap a smaller individual reward (albeit a reward presumably large enough to compensate each of these immigrants for the trouble and anguish endured as a result of moving away from his or her home country).

By what metric is Mr. Lee more productive – by what calculus is he better for America’s economy – than is this group of 200 low-skilled immigrants?  I can think of none.  In both cases, the U.S. economy is larger by $100 million over the course of a half-century.  More precisely, in both cases each of the hundreds of millions of people who rely upon the American economy for their well-being has, on average over the span of 50 years, access to a pool of valuable outputs that is annually $2 million bigger than it would have been without the immigration.

If the productivity of a high-skilled worker justifies his or her immigration into America (or whatever country is in question), then surely the identical productivity of a group of low-skilled workers is equally justified.

Nothing relevant about the above simple example is strained or contrived.  Much (if not all) of what a high-skilled worker can do is done equally well by a larger number of low-skilled workers.

True, a randomly chosen low-skilled worker is more likely than is a randomly chosen high-skilled worker to seek government welfare.  But it’s not at all obvious that the net economic contribution of low-skilled immigrants will be rendered negative by this propensity.  Before the economic merit of low-skilled immigration can be adequately assessed, the added economic output of low-skilled immigrants must be weighed against whatever increased burden these immigrants are likely to impose on taxpayers in destination countries.

Moreover, if the policy issue is promoting domestic economic growth, this problem of immigrant access to government welfare is relatively easily handled.  The government of the destination country could, for example, require as a condition of entry that each low-skilled immigrant agree that he or she will never receive a range of government welfare payments.  Those persons who insist that such a requirement is inhumane or unfair should ask if it is more humane or fair to deny access to low-skilled immigrants who would agree, if presented with the opportunity, to such a requirement.  Is it more humane and fair to oblige such would-be immigrants to remain in their home countries?

It’s worth pausing to note that it’s less clear than is normally supposed that low-skilled immigrants are more likely to be a net burden on taxpayers than are high-skilled immigrants.  Low-skilled immigrants undoubtedly are indeed more likely than are high-skilled immigrants to seek government handouts to pay for food, clothing, and household energy.

But what about higher education?  A plausible case can be made that high-skilled immigrants are more likely than are low-skilled immigrants to have children who receive taxpayer subsidies for undergraduate and graduate training in institutions of higher learning.  Also, high-skilled immigrants are likely to live longer than low-skilled immigrants and, hence, more likely to consume more resources through Medicare.  And high-skilled immigrants might be more likely than are low-skilled immigrants – especially as western economies become more and more politicized – to petition government to subsidize the firms and industries in which they work.

These are all empirical questions, of course.  My suggestions might well be mistaken.  I make them only to highlight the fact that modern governments oblige their taxpayers to pay not only for welfare for the indigent but to pay also for welfare for the well-to-do.  So it’s illegitimate to assume that the poorer (or lower-skilled) someone is the more likely that person is to become a net burden on taxpayers.  The high-tech workers at Solyndra, after all, were a huge burden on U.S. taxpayers.

The relevance of the distinction between high- and low-skilled immigrants shrinks ever further when we consider this passage from page 37 of Joseph Ferrie’s chapter, “A Historical Perspective on High-Skilled Immigrants to the United States, 1820-1920″ (emphasis added):

[T]he transformation of manufacturing from manual to mechanical methods occurred most rapidly in [geographic] areas where a large unskilled labor force suddenly became available in the 1840s and early 1850s.

Low-skilled immigrants promoted a high-tech outcome.  The availability of a large-enough supply of low-skilled manual workers made profitable the introduction of high-tech (for that era) machinery and factory organization whose use was not profitable with fewer low-skilled workers to supply these factories’ demand for labor.

This outcome – while perhaps startling at first blush – isn’t so surprising.  Market economies are unimaginably complex, with feedback loops, connections, and ‘reaction functions,’ that work in ways that often astonish anyone equipped with only rudimentary knowledge of economics and of economic history.

Were immigration restrictions on Uncle Sam’s agenda in the mid-19th-century, one can easily imagine intellectual and political elites back then having a discussion much like the discussion going on today: “Well, high-skilled immigrants are what we want.  They, unlike low-skilled immigrants, will prepare America for the coming high-tech future!”  (In fact, thankfully, immigration restrictions were not on the government agenda back then.  Not even the Know Nothings proposed restricting immigration; they simply wished to slow the process of naturalization.)  Had this discussion led to restrictions on low-skilled immigrants, it is quite plausible that, even if high-skilled immigrants remained unconstrained during the 19th century in their ability to come to America, America’s economic growth, industrial might, and access to high-tech production methods would have been compromised.

Denizens of market economies prosper more the greater the mobility of capital to find its most remunerative (that is, most productive) uses.  Ditto for resources.  Ditto for consumer goods.  And ditto for labor.

While we Americans should, by all means, make it much easier for the likes of foreign-born engineers, physicians, architects, and web-designers to immigrate to America, the same holds with equal force for immigrants whose skills are much fewer and far less sexy.

Professor Donald J. Boudreaux is a Professor of Economics at George Mason University. He is the author of Globalization (Greenwood Press, 2008) and has a blog with Russ Roberts entitled Cafe Hayek.

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Comments

  1. says

    I generally agree with you, but on low-skilled immigration I think you are just applying your prejudices without data. As you note, it’s not at all obvious that the net economic contribution of low-skilled immigrants will be rendered negative by welfare, and surely it is not, but I haven’t seen much in this area that is not tendentious because there’s no upside to meticulously calculating some demographic groups are net sponges–you’ll be labelled a bigot. Food stamps, free school breakfasts and lunches, Section 8 housing, it adds up, and in my suburb the immigrants have added crime, increased class disruptions at school, got the schools focused on the new achievement gap (and so dumbing down tests), and live in subsidized housing, etc. I agree with Milton Friedman on this, that low-skill workers are not attractive immigrants with the multifaceted welfare state we have.

    • says

      The Bush adm has been guilty too of not itotecrpng us from whatever may slink across our borders. All our adms. are protected from that slime so they don’t worry about the common people.It makes me- more than ever want to choose someone who has never been in politics and someone I feel I can trust, more than run our country, a person who will not mesh in with the majority who are in congress now and be above being brought down to their level. AND I do mean -down. There are still a few who are above approach and some of the new ones I believe are strong enough to withstand the pressure of the evil ones.PLEASE GOD HELP US /// GIVE US WISDOM

      • says

        Come now, take a deep breath. Opposing aglelil immigration does not automatically equate with hatred of aglelil immigrants. One can certainly take the position that our immigration laws should be strictly enforced, while recognizing that most (not all!) of these immigrants are personally decent people trying to help their families out.But they should not break our laws to do so. Simple as that. Unless you know the hearts and attitudes of all the anti-immigration (really anti-ILLEGAL immigration) folks, you owe them the courtesy of not assuming bad intentions.

        • says

          Come now, take a deep breath. Opposing illagel immigration does not automatically equate with hatred of illagel immigrants. One can certainly take the position that our immigration laws should be strictly enforced, while recognizing that most (not all!) of these immigrants are personally decent people trying to help their families out.But they should not break our laws to do so. Simple as that. Unless you know the hearts and attitudes of all the anti-immigration (really anti-ILLEGAL immigration) folks, you owe them the courtesy of not assuming bad intentions.

          • says

            I find the very sudden rise and the elulqay sudden fall to be very strange. I can understand the Civil War in 1861 dissuading more people from immigrating to America, but the sudden drop seems to be a few years previous. Maybe it was caused just by the growing tension between the North and the South? I also don’t know how to explain the rise. What happened around 1845 that would cause such a drastic rise in immigration?

        • says

          Unrestricted immigration is anohter form of nihilism, fueled by guilt. The bald chick personifies innocence, in the sense of naivete. A newborn child is helpless and screams “take care of me!!” The bald chick is screaming similarly, saying, “take care of all of these people!”Will she take care of them? Why, no. She is bald, like a newborn. She can take care of no one at all. But you–you must take care of them.

  2. pravin says

    @eric. well,you just missed don’s point. the well to do also receive welfare and subsidies in education and medicare for example because their kids will go to college and live longer presumably.
    about crime:i guess white collar crime is fine with you?

    THE REAL problem is one caused by the existing ‘low end’ citizens,especially those competing against the low end immigrant reacting violently because of fierce competition from ‘aliens’ that makes them capture lesser value than they could previously in the absence of competition(i cant figure why americans like to use that word to describe foreigners)

    • says

      And if the GOP loses the knee jerk loyalty of rasicts and xenophobes, the ship also is going down. In short, the GOP is wedging itself. You’ve got to love the irony!Maha,I wrote a silly little poem about this:“Open the gates to the brown droves,”That Little King George “loves.”The corporatist’s had this idea,And it was vetted past numerous “Rove’s.”“Build up new gates and bar the doors,”Debates arose on Congressional floors.“Why not build a moat?”“We’ll lose the Hispanic vote!”“Who’ll harvest the veggies?”“We’ve got to work the edges.”The Democrat’s laughed,As esteemed colleague’s resorted to wedgies.Sorry, it’s the best I can do after last night’s party

    • says

      I tend to agree with you, and not with Reihan, on this subject. But I think you’re not lalrey thinking through the implications of saying stuff like let Jose Vargas stay in this country. Well, of course. But if we let him stay, why do we not let the single mother working to support her two children stay? Where do we draw the line between Vargas and other illegal immigrants who haven’t committed any crimes (other than coming here illegally, of course)? I think you need to draw out much more clearly what the world would look like if we don’t enforce our current immigration laws to persuade people who are on the fence like myself.

  3. Ed Breen says

    There is a tax/entitlement issue related to the welfare consumption issues raised in the above comments. Clearly there needs to be some data to support you conclusions. I think you oversimplify the issue in your single analogy in an agricultural context…even there you do not include any job creation that would have been created high up the value chain to support the skilled immigrant’s innovation. You do not consider that the innovation would have tradeable export value in addition to domestic achievement and as I suggest above you offer no thought about the tax revenue generated from the skill against low wage labor.
    In addition I think you oversimplify what is meant by Skilled and Unskilled…its really a lot more complicated. Some untrained immigrants, without experience in a skill that is in demand, are nonetheless basically educated, literate, can do basic math, speak the domestic language and possess cultural attitudes with regard to achievement and family that are consistent with domestic norms, but this in not all that ‘unskilled’ refers to, and this is not typical of unsilled immigration to the U.S. It appears you would conflate such an ‘unskilled but educated’ immigrant profile with illiterate and culturally handicapped immigrants who represent completely different economic attributes. I do not disagree that low skilled and unskilled immigration has value but I think you have address the issues with more detail and consider if they should all be treated the same. Immigration can include guest worker status, temporarty worker status and citizen status for different reasons and for different catagories of immigrant skills and intentions.

    • says

      beauty of the DREAM Act, and Jose Vargas’s cimapagn on its behalf, is that it focuses the debate on concrete injustices perpetrated against specific, sympathetic immigrants. The majority of voters don’t want millions of low illegal immigrants given amnesty and and do not want higher levels of low skilled legal immigrants. You think immigrant critics can be persuaded into accepting amnesty and more low skilled legal immigrants by focusing on people like Vargas instead of the millions of low skilled immigrants.I think otherwise. Talk about Vargas as much as you want. I bet it will make no difference with the majority’s hostility to amnesty and more low skilled immigrants.They can see that much of the elite class wants more immigration and does not care about enforcing any immigration law.

  4. Mike Wallens says

    What complete and total Chamber of Commerce garbage. In a time where real unemployment hovers around 10 percent, this person wants to import millions of additional no-skills consumers of government services.

    The population isn’t contracting now. The available jobs are, but this writer clearly has no interest for the average American. He simply wants industry sweat shops where a massive over-supply of cheap labor outstrips demand.

    • says

      Better late than never Rush….Unfortunately, it may be too late.The illegals are here in such bmuenughers that the politicians areready to just change the laws toaccomodate the law breakers.And what about the rest of us who have to follow the law and payour taxes? Better speak up quick!

  5. GW says

    Lost in all this analysis is the idea that perhaps economic growth isn’t the raison d’etre of a civilization. I’m less concerned with what the US’s GDP growth (which declines on a per capita basis with unskilled immigrants, brainiac) is and more concerned with what how easy it is to communicate and interact with my fellow citizen. I cannot easily do this in immigrant-heavy areas, thus to me (and a majority of non-elites) immigration is easily a net-negative.

    To pravin, who believes the low-end American is the problem. Please go back to whatever 3rd world hell-hole you are from. The low-end American, for his faults, owes you nothing. He deserves to be represented by the people whom he elects. They have the responsibility to ensure that he is allowed to live in a society where his skills, however limited, aren’t replaced by people who have no right to be here.

    • says

      certainly agree that we should relax the rules-on pure ebrunms, we should let way more people into the US than we currently do. I’m skeptical that your value-added test would really work-as someone who works with refugees on a daily basis, it would be very difficult for me to make that determination for each refugee, even after some of them have been in the country for a year or more. The reason why I want to press you on the mechanism of increasing immigration is because I think in order to make reforms work politically we’ll need BOTH empathetic stories like Vargas AND concrete ways to make it clear that the immigration reforms bring an economic benefit to American citizens.

  6. John Ray says

    I am amazed
    You look at Gross GNP only — not GNP per capita

    It is GNP per capita that matters to individuals and your chinaman is clearly good for that

    For the Hispanics not so much

    • says

      I get so tired of hearing that there are jobs that Americans silpmy will not do. a0 Do you think they’d do the work for $1,000 an hour?a0 Ia0 would.a0 You would.a0 So let’s stop repeating that ridiculous mantra.a0 No one seems to consider that a pound of peaches OUGHT to cost more than a pound of machine-produced candy.a0 Let the free market set the wage, for heaven’s sake.a0 The real root of the illegal immigrant problem is not lazy Americans; it’s the income tax.a0 Before its introduction, anyone who came here paid taxes constantly as they bought and sold; there was no escaping them. Federal intrusion into state decisions such as wages, health care, and education exacerbated the problem, and now we are presented with the ludicrous choice of either continuing to bankrupt ourselves or building a Berlin-style wall.a0 The correct answer is to eliminate the federal income tax and the federal mandates to provide free services.a0 Put an end to the unconstitutional federal mandates, and the illegal immigration problem is solved.a0 Seek out and elect those who actually honor their oath to uphold the Constitution it’s truly our only hope.

    • says

      The same thing happened in the mid 60s Mid 1860s that is. There was oodnby to pick the cotton at slave wages. It is time that Farms, Construction and all of those other industries that depend on the artificially low wages created by an influx of illegal aliens pay a wage based on reala0demand.a0 Paying a low wage just because you can get away with it and then pass on all the other costs for people to work at these low wages onto the Taxpayer is not a conservative principle.Bringing in a glut of illegal aliens to fill these jobs, brings down the worth of everyone’s labor. It is very similar to flooding our monetary system with counterfeit money.a0 It is not that hard to understand the real economics of this. Pay the wages!

  7. Richard says

    It all boils down to whether or not you support a fair and responsible economic environment, or you support a free and unresponsible economic environment. I support fair and responsible. Those that support free and unresponsible contend that no matter what, a fair and responsible market will break down, because those that believe in a free and unresponsible market will bring it down.

    We as a civiliation ( people living in populated areas ) have agreed to live together abiding by laws that apply to all of us, socially, culturally, economically, etc. As such fairness arose out of this concept. A free market is driven solely by greed, where as a fair market is driven both by greed and by rules. We need to agree that the goal is to play by rules and to do so all the time. When you dont play by the rules, then their are consequences.

    As a result, we have to agree how to deal with immigration fairly and responsibly. These are human beings just like you and me. The USA has been considered a land of opportunity by most of the world for more than 100 years. This is because we make rules that apply to everyone and abide by them. That is only fair.

    Highly skilled and lowly skilled workers are both workers and as such they provide their respective function in our civilization. If the rules are taken unfair advantage of by members of our civilization then fix the rules and restore fairness and provide reparation for the unfairness. Regardless of the offense the reparation provided by them ought to equivalent in the eye of society.

    • says

      would it not be better to admit eloppe and simply deny them the right to state-funded welfare services than not to admit them because they might be net consumers of state resources?This is a good idea in principle but isn’t very practical. If an Hispanic woman shows up in theemergency room, I don’t think we want to have doctors let her die in the waiting room if she can’t produce papers. Similarly, I think it would be a hard sell to say that we’re not going to prevent her kids (who might even be American citizens) from attending public schools.Now, as I understand it the evidence suggests that immigration in general doesn’t have a significant negative effect on the state’s fiscal position. So if it were up to me we’d be pretty generous about letting in eloppe even if they might wind up costing taxpayers money. But if forced to do a limited liberalization, which political reality may require, it makes sense to start with the many, many eloppe who we can be confident will be gainfully employed and paying taxes.

  8. cris says

    I am skeptical of the supposed crime caused by immigrants. I often visit my parents in El Paso, Texas which was the safest big city in 2010. I knew this from other sources, but the El Paso page on Wikipedia has a reference. The population is over 85% hispanic also according to Wikipedia.
    This article does the research:
    http://www.theamericanconservative.com/article/2010/mar/01/00022/
    Furthermore I have worked with LEGAL immigrants in Massachusetts and I know they are denied certain welfare benefits by statute.
    Frankly I have known of several individuals and firms that hire illegal immigrants for competitive wages, and they have every right to do so. Whether or not it is legal is a separate issue. The employer and the employee have agreed to the matter, and it is their right to do so. Two people always have the right to enter into a voluntary agreement. Whether the government respects that right or prevents it from being exercised is a different matter.

    • says

      Tim, I’m not sure what your positive courtibntion standard (with respect to a hypothetical single mother) actually entails. Is the purpose of the standard to ensure that we’re not admitting people who might end up on the dole? If so, would it not be better to admit people and simply deny them the right to state-funded welfare services than not to admit them because they might be net consumers of state resources? Are you concerned that even without access to such services some non-criminal, non-terrorist immigrants might still make non-positive courtibntions, or is the purpose of the standard to exclude only criminals and terrorists?

    • says

      Steve, assimilation works both ways; the inargimmts come to the U.S looking for a new life and they will not feel at home if they aren’t welcomed. Of course, they should come through legal means but these are desperate hard-working people looking for a way to enhance their life. the last thing we want to do is to criminalize their behavior. As far as your other comments go, frankly they do not deserve a response but personally if you ask me, better start learning Chinese if you wish to compete in tomorrow’s world.Reality Check, the wire-transfer example was to depict the difference in unfair taxation toward the poor and wasn’t supposed to show a nationality difference. As far as accepting inargimmts, I think you prefer Latinos to Indians, right? (Hear that, Steve)Well, I think they come to the U.S with different skills and hence perform different duties. If you read Sepia Mutiny, you might be surprised to find out that there are Indians in almost every service industry. (tongue-in-cheek alert!)Well, as far as being a stripper is concerned, I am not sure you want to see a desi strip. We are better off doing taxes or tech support

  9. says

    >> a legal resident [in the eyes of the IRS] of Texas were to send say, $2000 to India I would be hit by a tionsactran tax of $200 whereas my next door neighbor sends $6000 to London, >>The use of India and London in this example is unfortunate. There is no nationality bias at play here. Your next door neighbor could also send $6000 to India and only pay wire transfer fees.I am always amazed at Indians getting worked up over genunine American efforts to gain a control on their immigration policies. Hare brained or not, it is their country and they get to try out policies.All talk about assimilation from Indians are nonsense. Can you deny the fact that latinos, puerto ricans, mexican americans, are way more integrated into American mainstream than Indians are. From truck drivers, to baseball, pro-sports, law enforcement, school teaching, to strippers, to enrollment in the Marines Indians are nowhere. Apart from the just demand of due process , legal immigrants (except those fleeing persecution) have little by way of rights. If folks feel the laws are trashy, then they can take steps to move out.

    • says

      You’re absolutely right. My poiitson doesn’t indicate otherwise, either. If you read the previous posts on the immigration issue in CT, you will see that I have repeatedly stated that I have no problem with cracking down on illegal immigrants. That’s the law and that’s the way it is.Some people view this as an attack on all immigrants and in some way, I can understand that too. Especially the part about Danbury banning volleyball outdoors, because it is an important part of the immigrant community.However, I do not endorse and quite frankly am repulsed by the rhetoric that the CT Citizens for Immigration Control engages in.

    • says

      I am 1.5 generation as well. My prenats are immigrants, I came here when I was 7 and I’m a legal resident alien still! (citizenship test is so exp!!)… Korean was my first language and I still speak it fluently. I think our kids will be 3rd generation though since DH is completely “American” and both of us speak English in our household.

  10. says

    From an email sent by Roy Beckof NumbersUSA:”Loss of Election by Republicans Based on Their Immigration-Reduction Grade of This Congress* 9.6% with an A grade lost* 25.0% with an F grade lost[ HUGE OVERRREPRESENTATION]* 9.2% with a B grade lost* 6.4% with a C grade lost* 9.5% with a D grade lost “…it looks like being conspicuous for a snfiltoe on illegals is quite hazardous for a republican incumbent nowadaysThe overall percentage of republicans losing was ~10%Being known for standout amnesty was associated with several-fold increased risk of defeatThe email also mentions the one candidate who ran on amnesty, a democrat named Pedersen in AZ, who lost.All this seems necessary in that the media is pushing the reverse interpretation from the facts; that republicans were hurt by toughness on immigration or illegals.

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