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Yes, it's clearly mostly a cultural issue. The costs of having children are obvious, direct, and tangible (money, time, stress, responsibilities, fear of shame and judgment if children don't turn out well, physical transformation and danger for women) while the benefits are often vague and platitudinal ("children are our future," "it's the next step," "it's time to grow up," etc.). Without things like religion to create social and cultural rewards to influence people's behavior, of course people are going to look at those pros and cons above and either have few or no kids. A society can't just make having kids merely more affordable or less strenuous; it has to actively give high status to those who have kids. And you can't just legislate that.

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Well, you CAN legislate that only giving active parents the right to vote, and no one else. Of course, the vote has to actually mean something

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Demeny voting is the more moderate proposal that will never happen. Let parents vote for their kids.

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One simple part of this whole thing is that having and raising kids is time consuming and often difficult. Some people naturally enjoy having children more than others, and when the economic imperative to have children is reduced, along with various social/cultural/religious encouragement, fewer people overall will do it, just like fewer people would do any difficult time consuming things if there are fewer incentives / less pressure.

The idea of kids as a capstone rather than foundational is counterproductive for the obvious reason that having kids is way more exhausting when you're older. And I agree that our culture instills utterly insane amounts of fear re: being a parent, motherhood in particular.

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author

yes. I agree.

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Mar 17Liked by Ruxandra Teslo

I start to pause at the notion that maybe we might want to change culture to encourage more people to have kids, not for doomer-reasons, but because I wonder if people are just rationally deciding that having children in the modern world is more trouble for most people than it is worth.

It seems broadly that as more people get the option to have less children, across cultures, they seem to take that option. Having children is costly, both in financial cost and opportunity cost terms. It has gotten more costly as time has gone on both in terms of financial cost (children now need more education and preparation to be successful compared to just doing physical labor on a farm) and in opportunity cost (the parents are giving up more opportunities, both professionally, and also just recreationally/personally, like traveling the world) by having children. My default assumption is that when people make a decision like this, they are making the right decision for them given the information they have.

It is hard to measure the counterfactual. Would the people who are opting to not have kids now be happier in the alternative reality where they did have kids? If they would not, is their unhappiness from childrearing balanced out by the societal imperative that someone needs to have kids and raise them?

Basically, I worry that if we try "cultural engineering" here, we might distort the non-financial (e.g. happiness) economic incentives here, and create some deadweight loss that destroys a lot of value (e.g. happiness, freedom) for everyone. At the same time, I concede that there's no particular reason to think the cultural norms we have settled on at the moment are perfectly calibrated to exactly maximize everyone's happiness/well-being/etc, so there might very well be room to move them in a better direction.

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author

thank you! Yes, I see your point. I do believe that we can have a cultural local minima though. See Bryan Caplan's work on the topic and how we overstress about kids.

I certainly think our culture encourages anxiety, and that is reflected in how we approach having kids. but yes, the trade-offs are real

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Yes, it is a cultural issue. But a lot of culture is what people do. Teenage pregnancy rates peaked in the late 1950's and fell thereafter. Falling rates of this were seen as positive in the 1990's because teenage pregnancy meant poverty and poor prospects for the children. It was a social problem. But in those earlier times, teenage pregnancy often meant marriage with the father getting a job to support his family. That was the social norm. Backing this norm was an economy in which a person starting out in an unskilled job would earn a wage that would provide a lower working-class lifestyle and continued to do so going forward. If the guy had anything on the ball, he would get a better job or advance in some other way so that by the time he was in his late 20's was earning enough for a working class lifestyle (and they would have a couple more kids). If he was above average in ability, his family would end up solidly middle class.

SInce 1980 such a couple would not make it. The boy would get this entry level job. But the income this job earns would fall relative to living standards. If he did make efforts to advance all he would achieve is to keep the working poor lifestyle they had at the start. The economic environment (that reflects economic culture that is set by economic policy) is simply not conducive for this couple to make a go of it. They don't have a chance. The families and individuals involved sense this and the marriage doesn't happen. What was an embarrassing oopsie becomes a social problem and the larger culture acts to encourage kids to delay sexual activity and to use protection to avoid too-early pregnancy.

What conservative analyzes ignore is we had a higher fertility culture, yet conservative went forth with a bunch of sweeping tax cuts and other economy policy that had dramatic effects on economic culture and practice with no care as to what this would do to families.

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Mar 17·edited Mar 17Liked by Ruxandra Teslo

This is a great post (subscribing). However, let me just point out one thing. Take a look at your "Parents Find Child Care Meaningful" graph. 62% find it very meaningfully. So, 38% do not. (No doubt, some of those 38% find it "meaningful," just not "very meaningful." Still.) Thus, fertility is likely to drop even further. If your mother didn't enjoy motherhood, and you have the option of forgoing the whole thing (in the way that you do *not* have the option of forgoing employment), well then...

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author

thank you! Yes, I see your point but maybe meaningful is enough :)

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Mar 17Liked by Ruxandra Teslo

There is no fertility “crisis”, smaller populations will help humanity win the battle against life threatening climate disaster and help save the other species we share the planet with by protecting their shrinking habitat.

Robots equipped with artificial general intelligence will wipe our aging asses and grow and prepare our food. Young people will have less competition for jobs so their wages will rise and with less demand for housing the cost of the existing housing stock will become more affordable. Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman recently looked at low birth rate Japan and penned an amazingly optimistic report on its economic conditions. "In some ways, Japan, rather than being a cautionary tale, is a kind of role model - an example of how to manage difficult demography while remaining prosperous and socially stable”.

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author

I hope you are correct. I would not place my bets on a prediction by Krugman though.

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I don't think it's controversial to say that Japan does look better than many places in the West, or Japanese cities do, at least. Americans of different political persuasions are always incredibly shocked at how clean, safe and civilized Tokyo is. Now, it's true that Tokyo has maintained its dynamism in part by sucking in people from the rest of Japan.

Most importantly, I think Dave's main point needs to be considered here. Are the robots and AI coming or not? If they're not coming, then, yeah, low fertility could be a problem, assuming things like embryo selection aren't coming either. If on the other hand, the not-too-distant future is one of robots, AI, embryo selection and genetic editing, then numbers will be completely irrelevant. Numbers won't matter if humans are going to be augmented and the robot/AI will do all the work anyway. So I think there is a contradiction between being techno-optimistic and being particularly concerned about fertility rates.

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Like most countries who are strongly homogenous, Japan will look quite different than the US

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Sure it might be clean and well ordered, but it is also lagging behind in terms of economic growth and the vibe does not seem optimistic from where I'm standing

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nice article tbf, thank you

yes, does seem at odds with the stagnation narrative

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When your plan depends on tech that currently does not even sort of exist being rolled out at scale to every human household and farm and kitchen, I would say that's not a very good plan!

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Forrest: Even without new technology (of which there will be a lot), the world’s population was only 2.3 billion when I was born and aside from a terrible world war people seemed to get along pretty well. What exactly makes you believe we can’t survive and even thrive with a population of three to five billion or so? There will certainly be more habitat for the rest of god’s creatures.

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I do think a world with 2.3bn but old and declining population will look different from a world with an equivalent burn young and growing population. Probably in some ways we can predict and some that are really hard to, because such a society has never existed.

At one point I straight-lined some projections for S Korea and it shows the country having more people older than age 70 than younger than 55 by 2050. Setting aside pensions and so on, that’s crazy to even imagine! It’s like a sci fi society. What will life in such a place even be like? What new social pathologies will emerge from it? And it could actually be worse than that if the young respond to that society by emigrating from it (the over 70s probably aren’t going anywhere).

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Spouting Thomas: South Korea is over ten times more densely populated than the US. A smaller population will give other species a chance to flourish and reduce the extremely high housing costs which impact younger people the most. I think they would have little reason to emigrate to countries where job competition is higher. South Korea is a very technologically advanced country so it will lead in the development of AI and robotics to assist in the care of the elderly. In addition, improving senior healthcare will keep older people active longer into their lives. I see many benefits.

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>I think they would have little reason to emigrate to countries where job competition is higher.

It's going to be a weird society, with probably very weird politics that are going to heavily, heavily favor the concerns of people older than 60 or even 70.

It might be good for certain types of work (especially healthcare), but it will be a bad place to try to start a new business. It's hard to make investments work in a society that is dying off, where the country's capital stock is depreciating faster than it's being replenished. To your point about AI -- if you're interested in tech, you may find as an engineer that the best bet is to decamp for California, that companies like Samsung are full of 70-year-olds with 70-year-old ideas and that it's impossible to start a new business.

We do have one model of an aging and population-declining society today: the various countries of Eastern Europe. Including East Germany. Ukraine may have been the worst. What we've mostly seen is a vicious cycle; the enterprising young people, who may have been able to help turn the place around, left for greener pastures. That left the place even more sclerotic and encouraged further emigration, or it has at least kept most of these countries from catching up to Western Europe anytime soon.

It turns out that job competition isn't really higher in economically dynamic societies; it's higher in stagnant and declining societies where it's hard to start a business and where the best gigs are corrupt, rent-seeking roles that are attached to government.

But as I said, who knows? All we can say is that these places are going to be weird, and they'll offer more of a window into the future of places where the fertility crash has proceeded more slowly.

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Good points.

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I like the idea that a shrinking population will reduce housing costs which will make it easier for young people to start families — like a thermostat.

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I think at some level this will prove true, but the interesting thing is that in both Japan and South Korea -- both of which have shrinking populations -- young people continue to congregate in fertility-killing high-rises in Tokyo and Seoul, both of which still have growing populations. Though housing costs in those places have still been kept under control better than in the Anglo countries.

One response to having a very old population is that all the young people try to concentrate themselves in a few places so that there are actually other young people around. In such a society, young adults function like a minority group, and the ordinary behavior of minority groups in a society is to cluster geographically.

For fertility to eventually recover, groups of young families will probably need to start recolonizing low-cost ghost towns together. I don't think it's going to happen within Tokyo and Seoul high-rises.

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deletedMar 19
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Publius: Ponzi schemes like social security always fail eventually because they rely on continued growth which is, of course, impossible. We will need to fix social security regardless of our population growth. Take the tax cap off the one percent: fixed.

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Yeah, technology will solve it, if voters allow the technology.

And BTW, with technology wencan easily cope with climate change and still have large families if we so desire. Again, if voters allow the technology.

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Centered: Anyone who wants a big family can have a big family. I am not aware of any country that is currently restricting family size. Are you? Similarly most advanced countries seem to be promoting the development of AI and robotics. Finding a wife in one of those advanced countries who wants more than one or two children (or a husband that wants to support more than one or two) is the issue. As China learned with its one-child, two-child and now scrapped three-child policies there’s not very much even a draconian government can do to influence population change one way or another.

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Voters have no say as to what’s foist upon them. It can only be delayed

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Mar 17Liked by Ruxandra Teslo

Few thoughts:

1. I thought replacement TFR was 2.1, not 2.06?

2. Israel is a direct refutation of the “Econ is everything” theory. Even secular Jews have a TFR above replacement in Israel. I’ve been told that it’s a “sign they buy into the ethos of the state”.

3. I remember seeing a study (which I can’t find) that claimed that Brazilian TFR started dropping when telenovelas showed smaller families. I wonder if a) that is replicable and b) that works in the other direction

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author

thanks for flagging the 2.1 thing! I think there are multiple ways of calculating it and I stumbled upon a 2.06 one, but 2.1 seems more common.

re:2. agree, but I wanted to bring examples from the past because they are more extreme and we have more hindsight knowledge.

re:3 check out references in this paper: http://walkerhanlon.com/papers/beach_hanlon_demographic_transition.pdf

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Mar 19Liked by Ruxandra Teslo

2.06 sounds more precise and that someone did some math, but who knows. Note that it’s not a fixed law of nature, it depends on childhood mortality. There are still societies today where it’s closer to 3 than 2.

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I don't find much to disagree about causes of lower fertility. I do think the consequences need not be as bad as stated: less innovation, less dynamism, unsustainable pension systems. There are policies, which have there own rationale are not that could address those negatives as well as some the push back at the reasons for lower fertility.

https://thomaslhutcheson.substack.com/p/population-fear-of-falling

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author

thank you! I do hope you are correct and glad to see some people who are not politically motivated think it's not that bad

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Mar 20Liked by Ruxandra Teslo

In the U.S., at least, I find it hard to believe that housing policy doesn't play a huge role: https://www.nber.org/system/files/working_papers/w21154/w21154.pdf. NIMBYism has massively raised the cost of housing, particularly in the most economically productive areas. Anecdotally, everyone I know who is delaying having kids or having fewer than they'd like cites the cost of housing. And that is true of me as well.

The policies that raise the cost of housing (https://www.vox.com/videos/2017/7/19/15993936/high-cost-of-free-parking) also raise the cost of things like daycare.

Something happened in the 1970s that caused the U.S. to lose its interest in building and doing new things, and there's some cultural factor underlying that. Thus for example https://wtfhappenedin1971.com/.

Japan is the great counterexample to the housing-and-births thesis but Japan seems to have many of its own challenges, particularly in terms of work and work culture.

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author

thank you! I actually agree and would probably need a follow up post to this. I think most policies that work are not intended to raise birth rates as it is, but rather this folllows as a consequence of other effects: e.g. increased independence in the young

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author

in the same way, most policies that harm birth rates are not explicitly designed to do so

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For some anecdata, I'm stopping at 2 because I can't afford a bigger house (and I'm very well off). I live in 850sqft house in London.

There's the economic component, but two interlinking cultural ones:

1) It would be considered societally inappropriate for me to shove multiple children into a room, even though it used to be fine (I shared a room growing up); and

2) The strategy of 'kick your kids out of the house and tell them to be back for dinner' my (very loving) parents used would get social services called on me nowadays.

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Yeah, also there is an intertwining of "culture" and economics or finance or whatever term you use. The U.S. has restrictive zoning that segregates uses, which is economic, but why is that? One can give hand-waving answers like "voters" or "self interest," but probably there is a cultural reason in there somewhere. And much of Europe uses similar practices, with the UK being a particularly egregious exampleL.

L.A. used to be zoned for ten million people: https://abundanthousingla.org/downzoning-in-los-angeles/. In the 1950s, a one-bedroom Manhattan apartment cost the equivalent of about $600 today: https://ny.curbed.com/2013/11/21/10172014/what-would-50-in-1940-rent-a-new-yorker-today.

Imagine a world in which it's easy for potential grandparents to move to where their adult children are, or where an extended family can turn one house into a few townhouses. In that world it's way easier to have kids. But we live in a world where NIMBYs make that impossible and that has to have some substantial impact on fertility.

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Mar 17Liked by Ruxandra Teslo

Ms., this is the single best article on the subject i have yet read. Agree, agree, agree.

I disagree only to the extent that I (a leftist millennial anglophone woman) consider this predominantly intractable from a biological perspective. But not for any of the reasons thus far explored in media articles. Henry Gee’s “Extinction debt” gets the closest. Pop gen and WGS might shed light.

Older dads, rare variant burden ala Akexey Kondrashov, indiscriminate untested admixture, loss of reproductive variance, changing density/disease ecology, all nails in the coffin probably.

Lifetime chronic disease burden. Half of women my age and older seem to have significant health burdens, such that if they could reach desired fertility with an extended fertile window, their other physical issues would discourage it.

I call it a loss-of-fitness incident pit. A case of the Anna Karenina principle. There are vastly more ways to be low fitness than to be high fitness.

I tip my hat to you for such incredible thought, research, and writing.

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author

interesting - what kind of health issues? do they have a healthy lifestyle?

Thank you for you kind words -- best way to support my writing is to share it, restack it etc.

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Autoimmunity is quite common. Hyper mobility. Post-birth issues like pelvic organ dysfunction, perinatal distress and many pregnancy complications, preeclampsia etc. Vascular conditions (stroke/mini TIA, migraine is in this category too), pulmonary - asthma and allergy, and metabolic syndromes like PCOS and diabetes even in thin women. Fibroids and endometriosis. I’m sure you also notice poor mental health among women (not just young women though it may get better with age).

If you’ve never been affected by random health scare or chronic condition it’s easier to blame conditions on unhealthy choices, but these can and do strike in even blameless lifestyles and stoic positive people. You’ll likely notice it too. Though women do keep quiet about many of these. What most would designate as “Affluenza” neatly traces to multi-generational lack of mortality selection.

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I don’t have a social media following to share it too but honestly this piece of yours clarified and distilled so many lines of evidence that are not always understood to be connected, no one has done so well as you have. Don’t know how you do it.

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Mar 17Liked by Ruxandra Teslo

Typo: Alexei (?) Kondrashov

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Mar 16Liked by Ruxandra Teslo

I enjoyed reading this, as much for the quality of the writing as for the persuasive argument. I will pass it around.

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author

thank you very much, sharing my piece is a great way to support my writing!

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Mar 18Liked by Ruxandra Teslo

That was a great, clear-eyed article. I agree that culture is the main driver, but I don't think economic arrangements, status anxiety, valorizing parents, or (on the contrary side) anti-natalist narratives make a significant impact on fertility rates - the only thing that matters is access to cheap and effective contraception.

There's no putting the genie back in the bottle, and I wouldn't want to, since I'm a garden-variety cosmopolitan liberal anyway, but I'd argue contraception is a hack that defeats millions of years of evolution. The main cultural forces that have been able to stem or reverse the decline have involved religious groups (or the state in the case of Ceaușescu's Romainia) interfering with access to birth control.

The other cultural issues seem to have only tiny, marginal impacts; maybe some policy could work that isn't tied to reducing access to birth control, but the magnitude would have to be inconceivable by our current standards.

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author

thank you! The France data is interesting, because it seems like people lowered fertility significantly, *before* the rise of widely avaialble and cheap contraceptives

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Indeed, I should be more careful!

Other factors can - and have - influenced fertility rates, though on an admittedly superficial read of the historical data, it really looks like the effects have been relatively small and variable over time. So I stand by the idea that the only thing that *matters* is access to cheap and effective contraception, because its effects dwarf everything else and don't show any signs of reversion.

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Mar 17Liked by Ruxandra Teslo

What are the examples of successful attempts to intentionally steer culture? The only movements I can think of are all some variants of identity politics. For pronatalism, this seems counter to the entire purpose, because isn't the whole idea is that childrearing should go back to being a default, and not a decision to belong to some unusual group?

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Mar 17·edited Mar 17Liked by Ruxandra Teslo

Excellent, thoughtful piece. Yet another example of the (Glenn) Loury principle: social relations before economic transactions.

https://www.brown.edu/Departments/Economics/Faculty/Glenn_Loury/louryhomepage/cvandbio/Relations%20Before%20Transactions%20Loury.pdf

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author

thank you very much!

Yes, I think as I age I am coming more and more to the view of social relations + culture > economics. So this is part of a broader theme

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Mar 17·edited Mar 17Liked by Ruxandra Teslo

A serious discussion of culture explaining outcomes is here.

https://global.oup.com/academic/product/armies-of-sand-9780190906962?cc=au&lang=en&

His PhD thesis is worth reading too.

https://dspace.mit.edu/handle/1721.1/11219

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Glenn Loury develops the ideas in the above paper in more detail here.

https://www.hup.harvard.edu/books/9780674260467

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author

thank you!

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Mar 16Liked by Ruxandra Teslo

Great piece!

I agree that it's mostly cultural, and not easy to fix by policies:

https://www.mangosorbananas.com/p/south-koreas-low-fertility-problem

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One word: Hatchery.

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author

haha you amuse me :))

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