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A Commercial Republic and the End of Desire

May 30, 2017 | (5,255 words)

Advertisers, along with Las Vegas odds-makers, possess a Solomon-like understanding of their target audience. With remarkable precision they parse the buying public into pertinent demographic groups, according to a series of age ranges: 18-25, 18-32, 25-49, and 32-54. The oldest of these cut-off dates has a particular significance, as we ourselves came to realize about a decade ago. It’s more-or-less the time in a man’s life when his body slowly transforms itself into a testosterone-free zone. The arrival of this physical change came as a complete surprise to this scribe, even though it’s a matter of public record, and the object of prevalent marketing campaigns for certain pharmaceuticals designed to reverse the condition. A corresponding mental characteristic of this loss we rarely hear discussed is the way one is no longer motivated by the same day-to-day things, the stuff everyone else is still motivated by. This leaves one feeling a bit cut off from the herd, as it were. The noisy and bustling world continues all around, but little-by-little one no longer feels part of the action.

The image that immediately comes to mind is a sailor of antiquity passing through the Pillars of Hercules, leaving the known world of the Mediterranean Sea and heading out into the vast unchartered waters of the Atlantic Ocean. It can be rather daunting, playing havoc with the reliable coordinates that defined one’s identity for so long, and one’s sense of place in the world.

On the other hand, if one has been blessed with a reflective or contemplative bent, and had the example of committed father who lived through this physical transition (without saying a word to any of us, of course), this loss can provide the opportunity to consider the behavior of the herd with a detached, objective perspective. And this detachment, this objectivity, can become the beginning of wisdom.

Needless to say, one of the first things to present itself for consideration after all that God-given testosterone is no longer coursing through one’s veins is what might not-so-euphemistically be described as a lack of desire. In addition to its most obvious physical manifestation (to which we will return in a moment), one is left with a pronounced lack of interest in buying things. Acquisition has suddenly lost all its allure. One sees for perhaps the first time how one’s entire life has been spent in a rather mindless pursuit of the next big purchase, skillfully manipulated, it turns out, by those savvy advertisers. To what end was all that wonderful desire we were so enamored of directed? It’s hard not to conclude the avid pursuit of purchasing power was, in hindsight, a less than edifying use of one’s carefully allotted time. And yet it’s what we have all been trained to focus our every waking moment on. How did the whole of American society ever come to be organized around this principle of non-stop, conspicuous consumption in the first place?

Well, it turns out that it was designed to be this way. As the late Catholic philosopher/theologian Michael Novak tells us: “…the Founders determined that a republic cannot be built upon the clerical (priestly) class; nor upon the aristocracy and military (whose interests in ‘honor’ caused so many rivalries and contestations); but upon a far humbler and typically more despised class, those engaging in commerce. They opted for what they called ‘a commercial republic.’”

The above quote comes from an opinion piece entitled “Firm Foundations: Democracy, Capitalism and Morality,” which appeared in The Wall Street Journal on December 27, 1994, and was excerpted in the same newspaper on February 18, 2017, the day after Mr. Novak died. It happens to serve as a concise distillation of the difference between his view of the world, and my own.

Using “commerce” as an organizing principle of society is a hallmark of modernity, of course, and did not originate with the American Experiment. But what was used before commercial exchange ascended to such prominence? As Mr. Novak himself alludes, the previous organizing principle had nothing whatsoever to do with buying and selling things. With the “priestly class” as its foundation, society’s previous organizing principle centered on promoting a life of virtue and excellence, regardless of one’s material station in life. In the old Christian tradition, long ago eclipsed by the modern tradition, securing eternal salvation was the goal of one’s earthy activity. The Christian monarchs of medieval Europe may not warrant a passing thought in the contemporary mind. But no matter how imperfect that long-ago world may seem to us now, those monarchies at least had the correct end game in their sights.

Eternal salvation was the precious idea Mr. Novak’s dreaded “priestly class” devoted their lives to sharing with the unwashed multitudes condemned to living a poor, meager existence back in those bad old days. (At least it was the life’s work for those among the clergy who were able to ward off the temptation of various forms of worldly corruption, a problem then as now.)

When pondering such absolutes, the obvious question that comes to mind is, why can’t we have both? Why can’t we have both an improvement in our material circumstance and a life of virtue and excellence? Accomplishing this synthesis has been the promise and the challenge of the modern age. It is precisely the question the American Experiment has answered in the affirmative, according to Michael Novak and all who have taken up his mantle. Our point here is not to suggest the two are forever irreconcilable. Our point is merely to suggest that America’s system of democratic capitalism is a long way from being the successful fusion of the best political, economic, and moral-cultural systems the late Mr. Novak spent his long, celebrated career claiming it is.

In questioning “commerce” as a valid organizing principle of society, we are not arguing against an increase in material well-being. And neither is the Catholic Church. Although the Christian tradition has always valued asceticism, it has also always recognized that most people are called to worldly lives rather than lives of renunciation. And it recognizes material flourishing as a desirable feature of such lives. The key point from the perspective of Catholic anthropology is that material things should be viewed as merely an “instrumental” good. Our desire for them should be measured by the ends the material goods are meant to serve.


Latent Dangers

19. Neither individuals nor nations should regard the possession of more and more goods as the ultimate objective. Every kind of progress is a two-edged sword. It is necessary if man is to grow as a human being; yet it can also enslave him, if he comes to regard it as the supreme good and cannot look beyond it. When this happens, men harden their hearts, shut out others from their minds and gather together solely for reasons of self-interest rather than out of friendship; dissension and disunity follow soon after.

Thus the exclusive pursuit of material possession prevents man’s growth as a human being and stands in opposition to his true grandeur. Avarice, in individuals and in nations, is the most obvious form of stultified moral development.

Populorum Progressio (On The Development Of Peoples)

Paul VI

March 26, 1967


This is where modernity and the American Experiment veer off course. Both have seen fit to discard two thousand years of Catholic teaching regarding such basics as the inherent dignity of human beings created in God’s image. In the process, both modernity and the American Experiment have rewritten the definition of what constitutes legitimate human flourishing. Our “commercial republic” treats money and material things as a “higher” good – meaning as an end in themselves – rather than as an instrumental good. Mr. Novak’s celebrated thesis gives short shrift to fallen human nature. Our having desires not ordered to reason leads to desiring material things in a disordered way. At this stage in our history, it may be asserted without risking a whiff of controversy that we Americans specialize in desiring material things in a disordered way.

There is a story to be found in Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905) that illustrates the difference between the two organizing principles being presented here for your consideration: modern-day commerce versus medieval virtue. Mr. Weber notes a common problem “industrialists” (i.e., Protestants) faced when employing “pre-capitalist” (i.e., Catholic) laborers. Agricultural entrepreneurs would try to encourage additional time spent harvesting by offering a higher wage, with the expectation that laborers would see time spent working as more valuable, and so engage in it longer. However in pre-capitalist societies, this often resulted in laborers spending less time harvesting. These laborers judged with a higher wage they could meet their basic needs while spending less time working, generating more leisure time in the bargain. The very leisure that philosopher Josef Pieper would later identify as “the basis of culture.”


The Ultimate Purpose

34. Organized programs to increase productivity should have but one aim: to serve human nature. They should reduce inequalities, eliminate discriminations, free men from the bonds of servitude, and thus give them the capacity, in the sphere of temporal realities, to improve their lot, to further their moral growth and to develop their spiritual endowments. When we speak of development, we should mean social progress as well as economic growth.

Populorum Progressio (On The Development Of Peoples)

Paul VI

March 26, 1967


As the secular has replaced the sacred, the cultivation of virtue and excellence as a measure of human flourishing has been set aside for a tangible, data-driven increase in the material circumstance of as many of the previously dispossessed as possible. While access to clean, running water and a safe, dry abode are worthy aims all should enjoy as their due, most of us in the West passed those rudimentary milestones long ago. Yet we continue to indulge ourselves in the material realm far beyond the mere satiation of hardship, as if we are all drunken sailors on leave in some far off port of call.

The tenured economists who draw their sustenance from the academy, along with a wave of conservative-libertarian Catholic think-tankers like the recently departed Mr. Novak, who have sprouted up like weeds in the last several decades, do not see things this way. They have devoted themselves to the promotion of the political/economic order known as the American Experiment as the perfect embodiment of the “commercial society” that addresses the most immediate needs of the widest possible number. While giving what amounts to some passing lip service to the transcendent nature of man, they have embraced free market, unrestrained capitalism as the magic bullet that “makes it possible for the vast majority of the poor to break out of the prison of poverty; to find opportunity; to discover full scope for their own personal economic initiative,” as Michael Novak went on to espouse in the same WSJ piece from December 1994.

Mr. Novak once wrote “it has never been difficult for me to identity with the poor. I was born among them.” As anyone familiar with his biographical sketch is aware, his formative years were spent in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, a hardscrabble landscape of steel mills and steep green hills. For all his supposed blue-collar street cred, however, his professional rhapsodizing about capitalism being based on liberty, individual worth and Judeo-Christian principles simply ignores the present-day reality of “working America”. That forlorn country is a land where finding “opportunity” and discovering “the full scope of one’s personal economic initiative” is difficult to come by. Job security is non-existent, and wages are capped – when not relentlessly cut – so that profits for the entrepreneurial and investor classes can continue to grow.

The prima facie evidence routinely cited by the conservative-libertarian research foundations in favor of the economic status quo is data regarding household consumption, which is put forth as a reliable indicator of human flourishing. This might be called the “consumer paradise” defense of our present form of Darwinian capitalism. It is beautifully encapsulated in a 2015 book entitled Popular Economics: What the Rolling Stones, Downton Abbey, and Lebron James Can Teach You About Economics, written by John Tamny. Mr. Tamny is an editor with Forbes magazine, and also the editor of His contribution to the discussion is the observation that when the wealth gap widens, the lifestyle gap shrinks. And this is a very good thing. In fact, it is the most important thing, the only measure we need concern ourselves with in evaluating whether a given society, and the particular implementation of a given economic system, is in fact living up to its responsibility of promoting the common good and improving the social order.

John Tamny sees monopoly profits as nothing less than a social blessing, because they “signal to the ambitious the wealth they can earn by entering previously unknown markets. Income inequality in a capitalist system is truly beautiful, because it provides incentive for creative people to gamble on new ideas, and it turns luxuries into common goods.” As proof of this cheerful logic, we are informed that since the year 2000 the price of a 50-inch plasma television has fallen from $20,000.00 to $500.00. And who doesn’t need a 50-inch plasma television?

As one might expect, from the perspective of Catholic social thought on economics, this particular defense of unfettered capitalism, and of our pluralist form of democracy within which this system thrives, has many obvious holes in it. Where Mr. Tamny sees “creative people looking to gamble on new ideas,” some of us see mercenaries on the prowl for how best to make their next buck. These mercenaries are quite transparently operating in the sturdy belief “a sucker is born every minute.” That the general public has been brain-washed into purchasing an endless stream of worthless consumer goods is nothing less than a tribute to the social engineering that has been visited upon us, starting in the first decades of the 20th century, then perfected through the all-pervasive medium of television – and now hand-held devices – under the guise of harmless infotainment. It is not, as Mr. Tamny would have us believe, a sign that all is right in the heartland.

The idea of American democracy and free market capitalism being mutually supportive of the highest possible aims of mankind was the late Mr. Novak’s unique calling card, and has been taken up by a cadre of think tank fellows who have followed in his wake. Defending this view has produced some awkward analysis, at least from the perspective of Catholic anthropology. In the same WSJ piece of December 1994, Mr. Novak claims:

Another service provided by capitalism to democracy is less well understood. The founders of the U.S. understood it very clearly however … Envy, it turns out, is the most destructive social passion – more so than hatred, which is at least visible and universally recognized as evil. Envy seldom operates under its own name; it chooses a lovelier name to hide behind, and it works like a deadly invisible gas. In previous republics, it has set class against class, sections of cities against other sections, leading family against leading family. For this reason, the early Americans stood against division (“divided we fall”) and sought ways to neutralize envy.

Here Mr. Novak is obviously channeling The Federalist, a famous compilation of essays written by a trio of our most esteemed Founders: James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay. In an opinion piece that appeared in The Wall Street Journal on September 10, 2016, Roger Kimball, publisher of the New Criterion, draws our attention to these essays, and how they grapple with two political/economic problems simultaneously: The potential for tyranny by the majority, and the potential of federal power to infringe on individual liberty. According to Mr. Kimball in the WSJ:

Madison’s central insight was that power had to be dispersed and decentralized if it was to serve liberty and control “faction.” Freedom and the unequal distribution of talent inevitably yield an unequal distribution of property, the “most common and durable form of faction.”

There are two ways to extinguish factions. The first is to extinguish the liberty they require to operate. The second is to impose a uniformity of interest on citizens. Some collectivists have actually experimented with these expedients, which is why the pages of socialist enterprise are so full of bloodshed and misery.

James Madison sees “factions” – differing interests being promoted by different groups – as “sown in the nature of man.” Eliminating the causes of factions offers a cure that is far worse than the disease. If protecting both liberty and minority rights are your goal, then the task of government is to control the effect of faction.

In Federalist 51, a companion to Federalist 10, Madison elaborates this idea of balancing interest-against-interest to remedy ”the defect of better motives.” Clashing interests would not be stymied but balanced against one another. If men were angels, Madison notes, government would be unnecessary. But in framing government “which is to be administered by men over men,” the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.

This crass American model of every-man-for-himself conjured by our most enlightened founders can now be seen to have found full flower in the latter half of the 20th century. As we used to know, but have now completely forgotten, Catholic thought provides a completely different take on this thorny subject. In a prior age we may not have had two nickels to rub together, but we were nevertheless instructed to address our fallen nature and control the “defect of better motives” by focusing on our responsibilities – to our spouse, our immediate family, and to whatever community of neighbors or townsfolk we may find ourselves in contact with.

This sense of personal responsibility served to improve the common good and promote social order. The age of democratic pluralism ushered in a pre-occupation with individual rights, with individual liberty, and with what The Federalist describes as an “absence of obstacles.” But how to keep each citizen’s self-defined sense of personal liberty, his own particular pursuit of happiness, from becoming an unintended form of tyranny? This, of course, is the underlying problem with any pluralistic democracy that bases itself on economic freedom and religious freedom, those twin pillars of moral anarchy.

By way of contrast, the ideal form of government from the Catholic perspective is a “confessional state” that seeks to suppress religious error and promote the practice of the one, true faith. In the formulation of Leo XIII (1810-1903), government should seek to promote the common good, and eternal life is good for man. Therefore the State has an obligation to maintain conditions possible for the pursuit of eternal life. That means some form of protection for religion in general, and for the Catholic Church more specifically. Ideally, it means some prudential State restriction of the public expression of non-Catholic faith.

In a series of encyclicals promulgated as the 19th Century was drawing to a close, Leo XIII offers us a thorough summary of how the modern age has gone awry, and how the ideology of Classical Liberalism at the heart of modernity has led mankind astray. But in the wake of Vatican II (1962-1965), pre-conciliar Popes like Leo XIII were deemed to be no longer relevant by an emerging generation of American Catholic intelligentsia. These upstarts believe the United States represents a “new moral paradigm” which justifies/requires a complete re-thinking of Church doctrine across the board.

Embracing the new American paradigm means walking away from everything the Church has ever taught. The novelty of this ideological abandonment has captured our imagination, and sums up Mr. Novak’s storied career in a nutshell. As he observes in his 1994 WSJ piece, “…in combination, capitalism, democracy, and pluralism are more protective of the rights, opportunities, and conscience of ordinary citizens (all citizens) than any known alternative.”

This substitution of America’s founding principles for established Catholic anthropology is the crux of the issue before us today. It is theme we have chosen to address in a general way with this collection of essays. In championing democratic pluralism, we have been taught to think of our founders as modern-day saints, staunch Christian gentlemen who fought a heroic battle against tyranny, and forged a new republic based on the cherished principles of individual freedom and the pursuit of happiness. The modern, anti-dogmatic brew they concocted was intended to magically harness itself to the common good through what they euphemistically described as “ordered liberty.”

In reality our revolutionary heroes were just a renegade bunch of rich white guys with aversion to paying taxes, or in some cases, not-so-rich ideological firebrands. They deftly deployed quasi-religious language in their proclamations, which exploited the genuine religiosity of ordinary people, and helped garner popular support for their cause. In all cases they were products of the Protestant Reformation or worse, the Enlightenment. Their various strains of apostasy forced them into reinventing the wheel when it came to this new political/economic assembly of states (the word “nation” was not part of their vocabulary), since they rejected Catholic teaching as it pertains to the proper form and role of government, and the proper aim of economic activity.

Taking the secular combination of capitalism, democracy, and pluralism to be the epitome of responsible statecraft is not something the late Michael Novak conjured out of thin air, all by himself. But with The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, first published in 1982 when he was a mere pup of 49, Mr. Novak did make an impressive case for this odd amalgamation being worthy of acceptance by all serious Catholics as the best possible operating system for a good and socially responsible life.

While Mr. Novak and his many acolytes provide polemical cover for our present economic free-for-all, there are some voices in the wilderness who are still trying to espouse an authentically Catholic take on economic behavior. In its “Vocation of the Business Leader: A Reflection” (2012), the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace (PCJP) articulates some core principles for those engaged in the contemporary economic and financial world:


Meeting the needs of the world with goods that are truly good and that truly serve.

Without forgetting, in that spirit of solidarity, the needs of the poor and the vulnerable.

Or the principle of organizing work within enterprises in ways that respect human dignity, through the principle of subsidiarity, which fosters a spirit of initiative and increases the competence of the employees who are thereby considered “co-entrepreneurs.”

And, finally, also not forgetting the principle of the sustainable creation of wealth, and a just distribution of that wealth among the various stakeholders who played a role in its creation.


These are mere excerpts from a document that was co-published with the John A. Ryan Institute for Catholic Social Thought of the Center for Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas, Minnesota. The complete text can be viewed at the University of St. Thomas web site,

If only the good Catholics who staff the ivory tower oasis represented by the likes of the Acton Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Heritage Foundation – lavishly funded conservative/libertarian think tanks that showered praise upon Michael Novak’s work and legacy on the occasion of his passing – would read and study and seek to implement the lessons contained in this this 2012 booklet from the PCJP.

One also senses the vision of economic life put forth by an independent author such as John Tamny is not quite as expansive as that of the Pontifical Council of Justice and Peace. As when Mr. Tamny offers in his latest book, Popular Economics, the happy example of our inexpensive appliances and apparel and other stuff that is made cheaply by Chinese workers whose daily wage equals what an American spends on a Starbucks latte. This, Tamny tells us, enlarges Americans’ disposable income. And increasing disposable income, as we have all been dutifully taught, is the unilateral objective that justifies our present economic system. It is the principle that renders any excesses that may accrue as inconsequential, and any inequalities that may result as just so much collateral damage.

In the March 26, 2015 edition of The Wanderer, a venerable Catholic newsweekly that prides itself on being both religiously orthodox and politically conservative, correspondent John Young adopts many of the same utilitarian fallacies expressed by John Tamny. Mr. Young cites a passage from Leo XIII’s ground-breaking 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum (On the Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor), but the context in which he does so seems to imply, as has become the fashion, that Leo XIII’s concerns no longer apply to our modern-day version of capitalism. Mr. Young seems to be saying “working men” are no longer “surrendered, isolated, and helpless, to the hard-heartedness of employers and the greed of unchecked competition. This mischief has been increased by rapacious usury” (RN 3).

Mr. Young tells us the “price system” should coordinate economic activities, distributing benefits equally. He acknowledges that for this oft-promoted guideline to function properly, “a strong moral framework, with an appreciation of the natural moral law and the dignity of each person” is a vital requirement. Then comes the kicker, when Mr. Young admits, “we are a long where from there.” Yes, Mr. Young, we are indeed a long way from there. And, one might add, what of the ancient Catholic complaint against “rapacious usury?” Has it, too, become less rapacious, since Leo XIII put pen to paper?

Still John Young persists: “Even in our present imperfectly functioning economies, chaos is avoided through the price system.” Prices, says Mr. Young, echoing such foundational thinkers as Ludwig von Mises and Milton Friedman, along with today’s conservative-libertarian think tanks that dominate Catholic thought regarding economics, “transmit information, provide incentives, and distribute income.” All of which makes our present system sound like a well-oiled machine. The only problem with this scientific approach, we would suggest, is the way it fails to take the needs of real human beings into account.

Unemployment and underemployment is nothing more than a course correction to the academics and policy wonks fortunate enough to live their professional lives above the fray. Or who are striving to one day arrive at that hallowed ground by virtue of their advocacy.

Under the heading “prices distribute incomes,” John Young informs us: “The price one receives is one’s income, whether as a wage or return on an investment. In a truly free market people whose return is too low will look elsewhere – whether for another job or another investment, while consumers will shop elsewhere when a firm charges too much.”

One has just a few follow-up questions for Mr. Young, et al. When Amazon unfurls a strategy that involves undercutting all legitimate brick-and-mortar stores, and manages to attract wave after wave of Wall Street funding, even though their business model has yet to turn a profit, is this an example the brick-and-mortar stores are “charging too much?” And perhaps a little closer to home, on the subject of an appropriate course of action when one’s wage is too low – has Mr. Young tried looking for another job recently?

There is a chorus that has been chanting the benefits of a “truly free market” for going on several centuries now. That certain Catholics have joined this chorus after Vatican II (1962-1965) is a most unfortunate development. It is Michael Novak’s celebrated 1982 effort, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, that has been responsible for leading droves of so-called conservative Catholics in the wrong direction, away from the papal encyclicals, while purporting to properly “interpret” those encyclicals for what he and others claim is our uniquely American circumstance. The economic obfuscation has been gaining momentum ever since. The theoretical merits of a “truly free market” are, sadly, nothing more than an Enlightenment illusion. At what point, one might ask, do we stop “aiming for full freedom,” and start dealing with the reality in front of us?

If the current crop of enthusiastic free market advocates can ever manage to ween themselves off the academic/research foundation dole, and start consulting Catholic texts instead of libertarian ones, perhaps some semblance of prudential judgement will eventually kick in, as they slowly advance into old age, and the limelight begins to fade.

The inexorable advance into old age is what it took for this correspondent to finally wake up. In our case it was the complete disappearance of testosterone that yielded a new-found perspective. The evidence was everywhere before our eyes, but we had previously been far too busy improving our material circumstance and buying stuff to notice. Not wanting to leave the wrong impression with anyone, allow us to point out that God-given testosterone is surely not the problem. It is, after all, responsible for the vital energy behind all sorts of creative and productive enterprises: inventing things, building things, organizing things, improving the function of things, etc. Rather it is the nefarious, man-made manipulation of testosterone to which we wish to object. But the natural late-in-life diminishing of physical desire that claims us all eventually, whether we want it to or not, can be the very thing that allows those of us with a reflective or contemplative bent to look back and see the error of our ways. And begin to ponder the error of our country’s ways.

This puts one in mind of the complaint often heard about the Catholic clergy when it comes to their daring to offer advice on sexual ethics and sexual behavior: Why should we listen to a bunch of celibate old (and not-so-old) men tell us how we are supposed to act? What could they possibly know about human sexuality, since they have bowed out of that particular arena of their own volition? What a surprise to learn it is only after recusing oneself from active participation in the heat of the moment that one can have any perspective on the matter, and appreciate and speak to the intended complimentary of the two sexes. In other words, it is only after arriving at and accepting celibacy that one can approach the subject of sexual morality with an unobstructed view.

On a personal level, the loss of physical desire most men experience later in life often results in the startling realization one has been sharing living quarters with a crazy person for the last thirty-some-odd years. But the crazy person in question just happens to be the mother of your children, who serve as irrefutable evidence the two of you were once on speaking terms. The caustic presence who eyes you warily is also possibly the last soul on the planet who would put up with you at this point. Adjusting to this unexpected turn of events has been known to affect different men in different ways.

Some turn bitter, and curse their fate. Others experience a renewed and deepened sense of gratitude. Specifically for one’s lunatic roommate, but also for the many other lesser blessings God has seen fit to bestow in the course of this haphazard existence. Such gratitude expresses itself most readily as a somewhat higher degree of patience with the world at large. At least that part of the world that lies outside the confines of work. And apart from the harsh machinations of our present, dog-eat-dog economic eco-system that defines this, our Commercial Republic.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.
May 30, 2017

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