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May 18, 2011 5:15 pm MST

The Debt Ceiling is Archaic and Useless

  • by: MADCO

“As far as I am aware, no other country on Earth has the idiotic policy that the United States has of having a legal limit on the amount of bonds the central government can issue,” he writes. “They correctly recognize that the deficit and the debt are simply residuals resulting from the government’s tax and spending policies. It makes no sense to treat the debt as if it is an independent variable.”

Bruce Bartlett, Reagan adviser

Congress has all the budget authority it needs (100%) without having a separately defined debt ceiling.  But in the run up to WW1, Congress wanted to facilitate Treasury issuance of the Liberty Bonds (cute name) to finance the preparation for war. So they set a debt ceiling, and gave the Treasury autonomy to issue Liberty Bonds up to the ceiling.  It worked but was never repealed.

But in every budget cycle, every single one, Congress gets to decide whether the debt will go up (deficit) or down (surplus) or stay the same (balanced).  The ceiling isn’t necessary.  

Btw, just in case anyone is stopped here, wondering how Congress gets to make that determination, it’s not that complicated in theory.  Congress looks at projected expenditures and revenues, sets tax rates, and gets what they get.  The projections are usually not 100% correct, but they are usually pretty close.

If Congress wants to make the debt smaller, they need to create  a budget surplus. If they want to keep the debt under the current ceiling, they need to balance the budget (since we’re at the ceiling now).  When the US is this close to the ceiling, and Congress  passes a deficit budget , like they recently did, they have already said they want the ceiling to go up.  

The Treasury (and others involved) are not concerned about the USA”s ability to pay, but our willingness.  If we create even the perception that we are willing to default, or unwilling to keep up, we will pay a high price for that.

Any posturing now about not raising the ceiling, is just political posturing. And normally I wouldn’t care. It’s political hay as spectator sport and doesn’t matter. Usually.  But now it’s dangerous.

But there is a large contingent of newbies and others on the Hill who appear to be serious about not increasing the debt ceiling. I suspect (and sincerely hope) that cooler heads will prevail, but meanwhile for each trading day that the ceiling stays where it is, the uncertainty factor increases.

Uncertainty is expensive for the borrower – US Treasury, i.e., us.

And that;s part of the danger.

The biggest danger, of course, is that the ceiling is not adjusted and results in a US default.

“The fact that we are here today to debate raising America’s debt limit is a sign of leadership failure. Leadership means that ‘the buck stops here.’ Instead, Washington is shifting the burden of bad choices today onto the backs of our children and grandchildren. America has a debt problem and a failure of leadership.”  Senator Obama,  2006

Philosophically correct, but ultimately political bs.  The Congress passed a 2005 and 2006 budget that were in deficit.  No one was surprised when the debt reached the ceiling.  

Bashing Obama for saying that then, and urgning Congres to get it together now misses the point. Bash away to prove you are not serious about a  solution to the “debt problem.”  Draw your own arbitrary line in the sand and defend to the death of the country.  Or at least the long term negative impact of the country.

If the US defaults- we never have – it will have several immediate and long lasting negative impacts.  At a minimum, borrowing will become more expensive, ie, interest rates will rise.  

The US Treausry issues bonds.  The financial markets define the  interest rate on those bonds as the risk free rate for good historical and socio-political reasons. For appropriate economic  reasons.  But if we default it won’t matter much to the our lenders (anyone who buys those bonds) that it was momentary political posturing, that it was used a political opportunity to force an ideological debate. They will price our default accordingly.  And it will cost us more. For a long, long time.

The idea of a grand showdown on spending had long been a staple of conservative analysis. Even before Reagan’s inaugural, he had been approached by one prominent conservative who urged him to force a showdown over the debt ceiling and simply refuse to sign on to one until the Democratic Congress reined in its spending plans. Reagan rejected this idea with a comment I wish I had understood better at the time.

The conservative activist who told me that story was convinced that Reagan would have won such a showdown. For fifteen years I agreed with him, but I was to learn something about the American people that too many conservatives don’t appreciate. They want their leaders to have principled disagreements but they want these disagreements to be settled in constructive ways. That is not, of course, what our own activists were telling us. They were all gung ho for a brutal fight over spending and taxes. We mistook their enthusiasm for the views of the American public.   Newt Gingrich: Lessons Learned the Hard Way (1998)  

“We mistook their (conservative activists’) enthusiasm for the views of the American public.”

It’s easy now in hindsight to conclude, what a maroon. But the GO(T)P appears to be making the same mistake now.  Raising the debt ceiling is not a failure or one party, nor a victory for the other.  It’s a math equation.

And adult leadership needs to increase the ceiling, have whatever budget battle they want to have and pass the budget for 2012.


78 thoughts on “The Debt Ceiling is Archaic and Useless

  1. We will concede the debt ceiling if you return to enumerated powers, and honor the welfare clause as a limitation rather than an excuse.

      1. We consist of me and the mouse in my pocket.

        Actually “We” in context, defined by me, means all that wish to keep and even lower the debt ceiling.

        We would give up the debt ceiling if “you” defined by me as, all that want to increase debt perpetually, therefore increasing inflation perpetually, therefore reducing purchasing power perpetually.

        “We” would abolish the debt ceiling if “you” stopped implementing global socialism.


        Let us try a fairytale, it might be more to your level.

        Gothel: She sneaks into the home of the wealthy aristocrats to steal their child.

        •Government: It sneaks into our bank accounts to steal money, steals purchasing power by depreciating the currency, and kidnaps children by bribing them and drafting them into captive military service.

        Gothel: Pretends she is young, pretty, and has the best interests of Rapunzel in mind, whereas she is really old, ugly, vain, and holds Rapunzel in a tower to sustain the spell that keeps reality at bay.

        •Government: Pretends that it is representing us to provide collective goods in our own interests, whereas it is really serving itself and providing for special interests at our expense.

        Gothel: Makes up constant lies to keep Rapunzel from finding a way out of the tower, all based on the idea that the world outside is really full of evil people who mean to do her harm.

        •Government: Makes up constant lies to keep us whipped up in a nationalist frenzy, all based on the idea that the world outside is really full of evil people who mean to do us harm.

        Gothel: Flatters Rapunzel and makes her a much-vaunted hazelnut soup (what’s so great about that?) to keep her placated and less dissatisfied with her imprisonment.

        •Government: Flatters the population and gives us much-vaunted benefits (healthcare, retirement income, roads) to keep us placated and less dissatisfied with despotism.

        Gothel: Makes Rapunzel afraid of her freedom and unconscious of her true identity as the lost princess so that she won’t run away.

        •Government: Makes the population afraid of freedom and unconscious of our true human rights so that we won’t demand them.

        Gothel: Sustains herself like a parasite; so long as Rapunzel doesn’t cut her hair, which she could do at any time, Gothel will still look presentable in a size 9.

        •Government: Sustains itself like a parasite and builds monuments to itself; so long as we don’t stop obeying and paying, which we could do at any time, government officials and bureaucrats can have the high life.

        Gothel: Falls to her death once Rapunzel’s hair is cut and the spell is broken.

        •Government: Falls to its death once the population wises up and cuts its ties to the state.

    1. Let’s have the GOP put forward a bill to immediately end social security, medicare, & medicaid. And to pull all troops back to U.S. soil except for wars declared by Congress.

      That’s what is required for the restrictions you want. And I’m sure the bulk of the voters would immediately kick your ass support you in this effort.

      1. If we keep revenues the same and debt the same, however stop increasing debt, there would still be tremendous socialism.

        You spendaholics make heroin addicts look sane.

        You fuckers need to stop, NOW!

        “The lust for power, glory and fame is the ultimate temptation.” Saint Luke

        1. YOU should have spoken up when your boy George W. was getting into a war which had nothing to do with terrorism, and used off-the-books spending to pay for it.

          No conservative – no, not one – is off the hook for that.

    2. I don’t mean you, Mark G.

      I mean it’s not a serious proposal – the debt ceiling is not nor should it be a partisan football, nor the opening for partisan ideological debate.  Which is what your proposal amounts to.  

    1. Nothing personal, but it’s so self satisfyingly selfflattering.

      Focused on power and unlimited government, neocons seek control, broaden war, spread corruption, bomb cities, kill randomly, and plan on co-opting the Tea Partiers into liars like themselves.

        Does that about sum it up?

      Why don’t you try, please and thank you, commenting on what I said.

      – the debt ceiling is archaic and useless

      – politicizing the debt ceiling is stupid and dangerous

      – a US default would be bad.

  2. The federal government will take in $2.173 trillion in 2011. That’s their income, and it sounds pretty good. Until, that is, you factor in that the federal government will spend $3.818 trillion during the year. So, just like many families, the government’s outgo exceeds their income-to the tune of $1.645 trillion in overspending. That’s called the deficit. Altogether, the government has $14.2 trillion in debt.

    What would happen if John Q. Public and his wife called my show with these kinds of numbers? Here’s how their financial situation would stack up:

    If their household income was $55,000 per year, they’d actually be spending $96,500-$41,500 more than they made! That means they’re spending 175% of their annual income! So, in 2011 they’d add $41,500 of debt to their current credit card debt of $366,000!

    What’s the first step to get out of debt? Stop overspending! But that means a family that is used to spending $96,500 a year has to learn how to live on $55,000. That’s a tough pill to swallow. Those kinds of spending cuts seriously hurt, but it’s the only way out of debt for John Q. Public.

    1. Which program are unnecessary or redundant? (One hint: how many supercarrier groups does the US Navy have, and how many do all the rest of the world’s navies have?)

      1. In order to use your example and cut Carrier Battle groups, then we will have to change US Policy of trying to be the policeman of the world and using a CVBG as a show of force anytime another country pisses us off.

        If you change the policy, then cutting a CVBG or two is a possibility, but you cannot arbitrarily reduce that force and leave troops without tactical air coverage provided by the carrier.

        1. I don’t want to adapt an isolationist policy, but I don’t want to interfere in the affairs of sovereign nations just because they have oil and also leaders who don’t like us.

    2. As a counterpoint to your average family argument:

      I think by oversimplifying the problem, you oversimplify the solution. Your hypothetical family would have to reduce food expenditures, probably move to a smaller place, reduce driving, reduce health care. What do you want to cut to make it all work?

      Wouldn’t it be even better if the family looked to raise their income?

    3. the household comparison is ….of limited relevance.

      Seconad why doesn’t dad get off his but, get his old job back, or a second job and make another 35k?  While at the same cutting 10k.

      Why do you always want focus on austerity in expenses?

      We have the lowest effective tax rates we’ve had  in 50 years.

      Amazingly, our revenue as a % of GDP is the lowest it’s been in 50 years.

      If Congress was serious about the debt – they would have passed a less deficity budget.  They weren’t.

      1. if you assume dad took a pay cut in hard times and, when his bosses offered back his old salary, said “No Mr. CEO, you deserve it more.”

        1. 2/3 of American households own homes. 2/3 of them have a mortgage.

          median mortgage balance $178,000

          Median house hold income for homeowners  $51,000

          so even if they have no other debt (most have car loan (s) stuent loans, credit card debt, child support obligations or etc)

          So a typical American household has about 400% debt to income ratio.

          US debt to GDP right now- approx 100%.

          We gots a long way to go if we should be aspiring to get the national accounting to mirror households.

    4. I’d start by asking them how they got where they are.

      It sounds like this couple might have had a bigger income at one point, but made a decision to take a lower paying job even though it wasn’t really any more satisfying.

      At the same time, they went out and spent some money on some things they didn’t need, starting an expensive feud with someone in another area of the city who might have had some stuff they coveted…

      And their expenses went up, faster than they had planned for.  Those expenses really help other people that depend on them, though, and if they didn’t spend the money there would be even bigger expenses down the road.

      As a financial adviser, I’d tell them to stop the feud, seriously consider getting the higher paying job they obviously are capable of getting, see what they can do to limit the increases in those expenses (including cutting some if it is cost effective in the long term), and if necessary after all of that, have them consider moving to a cheaper place.


      Get that higher paying job:

      * End the irresponsible Bush tax cuts

      * Fix the estate tax

      * End or substantially limit capital gains rates

      * Close tax loopholes

      Stop the feud:

      * End the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan

      Limit expenses:

      * Make serious inroads into bloated Defense spending

      * Stop paying contractors when in-house is cheaper

      * No more security theater

      * End unnecessary subsidies (big oil, big ag)

      * Negotiate pharmaceutical prices

      * End the drug war.

      * Find efficiencies that lower costs – e.g. single payer

      If these don’t solve our problems, then yes, we need to cut programs more drastically.  But moving to a smaller place is not usually the first thing you do, especially if not too long ago you were able to afford it.

      1. But of course Congress just can’t live without their tired dichotomies.  Frustrating when the answers are so clear, yet nobody has the courage to enact them.

        1. The Federal government is not a household, and analogies only go so far, though you can stretch them a bit.  E.g.

          The taxpayers who pay the government’s “salary” are also beneficiaries of government expenditures; in this respect the government is more like a small business owner, who sometimes has to pay in to the business more than he gets out in order to the business thrive in the long term.

          That’s a somewhat strained analogy, but I think it works.  On the other hand, how do you express something like the Commerce clause, or the ability to print money?  Any analysis using this kind of analogy is bound to fall short of capturing the true nature of the issue.

  3. Look at the most radical right-wing plan there is to reduce the deficit: Paul Ryan’s plan. If enacted (and it won’t be), it would reduce the deficit…in 20 years. Maybe.

    In that time it would add $62 trillion to the debt.

    $62,000,000,000,000. If Republicans get everything they want.

    Now if your roadmap tells you under the rosiest projections that this is how much you will be adding to the debt, then you have to increase the debt ceiling. It’s not even politics, it’s just math.

    The only way you avoid a debt ceiling increase is to eliminate the deficit today. Not in 20 years like the Ryan plan, not in 10 years like the Republican Study Committee plan (too radical for half the Republicans in the House), today. No Republican has proposed such a plan because it would immediately send us into a depression.

  4. it never means a thing.  It’s always raised because the US isn’t going to default. Since the corporate/ Big Oil/Wall Street owners of the Republican party won’t stand for a default and the pesky grass roots Tea Party won’t tolerate any level of GOP Corporate Poodle Establishment compromise (it probably won’t take very  much) to get the ceiling raising job done, the only thing the debt ceiling might be good for this time around would be maybe blowing up the entire GOP heading into 2012 the way the Tea Party has already blown up any good chance of the GOP fielding a winning 2012 presidential candidate.

    In that case the ceiling would prove to be awesome. As awesome as the Newt/Ryan/Trump/Palin/Bachmann/Huckabee/Santorum follies. After decades of successfully manipulating the religious social conservative right while keeping their power and wealth elite bosses happy and firmly in charge, Rs may find that they went a bridge too far with the whole Tea Party thing.  If they can’t control it, and it looks like they can’t, the bosses will not be amused.

  5. We have more money coming in every month than the interest on the debt. Therefore, we will default ONLY if liberals refuse to cut back the outrageous spending levels they have implemented.

    1. Oh wait, Boehner and the Pork-laden K-Street Boys blocked that.

      Condemned as a $450 million-a-year boondoggle earmark from House leaders who represent General Electric jet engine workers, supporters on the GOP-controlled House Armed Services Committee yesterday included a provision in the fiscal 2012 Pentagon spending bill that would force the department to continue the dueling engine programs for the Joint Strike Fighter.

      Or perhaps you are thinking a bit closer to home, like trimming fat in our own Districts?

      In detailing his support for the Defense Authorization bill, Lamborn makes no mention of cuts or spending accountability, no mention of “crushing debt and diminished prosperity.” There is instead celebration of the spending the bill authorizes and a bullet-point list of the $300 million the bill secures for facilities in Lamborn’s district.

      Ooops, another spend-happy GOPer.

      See, son, when you come to ‘debate’ and have no frickin’ clue of which you speak, but merely are equipped to parrot back some vacuous talking points, you really seem like a fool–or is it tool?  Let’s agree to settle on foolish tool.  Tea puppeteer mission accomplished.  

      1. You’re only making a fool of yourself. Have you somehow missed the entire Tea Party movement? Ever notice that they aren’t happy with the spending in either party? Nope. Once again, blinded by your own false talking points. You just had to believe so much that the Tea Party was a wing of the GOP in order to demonize them, that you could not see their opposition to big spenders in the GOP as well.  

        1. to which I was responding.

          ONLY if liberals refuse to cut back the outrageous spending levels they have implemented

          Did you say Congress?  No.

          Another tip BTW, if you didn’t try to dodge the demolition of your ‘arguments’ by pretending you didn’t make them so often I might have a little more respect for your ability to interact with those who know who to use basic tenets of rational debate.  

              1. You seriously think that Doug Lamborn and Speaker Boehner were responsible for the stimulus, bailouts, and trillion dollar spending of the last two years? Things like this are why you can’t hold a candle to me in debate.

                    1. as noted.

                      Of course, he was Minority Leader at the time he pleaded, tears streaming, for his Members to support TARP.  

                      But I know.  

                      Merely a fact; and that your asking if I really believed Boehner supported the bailout, and I posting a clip of him doing just that is a distraction from you attempting to dodge, again, the destruction of another of your empty-headed talking points, which you believe–apparently in all good faith–constitutes an ‘argument’…

                      But a point of clarification, please my child, are you now saying, you will refrain  from blaming House Dems as they are ‘no longer in control’ or what exactly???  

                    2. * That’s a Churchill reference, for those of you who live in Rio Linda.**

                      **That’s a Limbaugh reference for, well, Twitty.

                      First of all, as you rightly pointed out, my original post said nothing about Boehner. That was a red herring you threw out there. My point is that as minority leader he was not in a position to pass anything, and thus the majority bears the responsibility. To pretend that the stimulus spending, etc. was a Republican idea is just beyond the pale, and laughable to boot. As far as TARP, while I am definitely opposed to it, it is a loan that was or is being paid back, meaning that it is not spending which ultimately contributes to the debt or deficit. I certainly would not hold House Dems responsible for anything that passes this session – they don’t have the votes to do it. However, the President and the Democrat controlled Senate bear full responsibility for whatever passes their respective desks. Any other matters of parliamentary procedure I can clear up for you my little man?  

                    3. I’ll make it easy on you: multiple choice!

                      A) my original post said nothing about Boehner

                      B) Boehner was minority leader

                      C) Stimulus spending wasn’t a Republican idea

                      D) Tarp is a loan that is being paid back

                      E) Democrats control the Senate and the Presidency

                      Nice try.

                    4. You know why you lost this argument? Because it’s about the current budget. The one being debated by the current House, the one controlled by your GOP. CT pointed out current GOP pork that’s likely to be approved by the current GOP members of Congress, and you lost it because you forgot that this isn’t about prior budgets.

                      The key to prevailing in debate is sticking to the subject at hand. (Oh, and providing facts and evidence to support your points. Oh yeah, and addressing counterpoints that fairly address your own points. These are all areas in which you need to grow.)

                    5. The current congress is voting for cuts, thanks to the Tea Party. You know who isn’t accepting those cuts? Yeah. Dems. I feel sorry for you trying to defend them; it almost isn’t even possible to come up with a coherent argument in their defense.

                    6. You were just presented with cuts that the GOP were against.

                      You’re not entitled to your own facts, little man.

                      Oh, how did you like the Republicans killing the oil subsidy? That’s fiscally responsible, wasn’t it?

                    7. You’re seriously trying to pretend that the Dems are the party favoring cuts? While simultaneously criticizing Paul Ryan’s balanced budget? And don’t you remember the previous years budget in which Dems so strenuously objected to the measly cuts the GOP was able to wring out? Nobody’s buying it.

                    8. I’ve never made any claims, one way or the other, about what the Dems want. I just know what they voted on this one time, which is what I was talking about. (If you’re going to try to smear me, it would help if my comments weren’t so clearly NOT saying what you say.) And in this particular instance, when Congress had a chance to save billions of dollars, the GOP punted. You can not dispute that.

                      Do you need Ritalin? You seem to have trouble keeping focus.

                    9. If by not opposing Dems more vigorously, then yes I agree Boehner didn’t get enough cuts. Perhaps a person who screams bloody murder about the GOP cutting things and then goes on to accuse them of not cutting it enough is someone who needs Ritalin.

                    10. … this is a prime example. We’re in a huge fiscal crisis, and the GOP did the exact opposite of what they preach. And you, their water boy, excuse it.

                      All I’m doing is pointing out the hypocrisy.

                    11. But if you look at the Republican Study Committee budget which cuts $9 trillion or Ryan’s budget which cuts $6 trillion, you see parts of the GOP doing what they preach – i.e. the Tea Party.

                    12. Floor votes are where it’s time to put up or shut up, and the GOP clammed up tight on this one.

                    13. What did I miss? I know you used to be a Republican, so there’s no doubt that you can be induced to change your mind, but it’s honestly too big of a stretch for me to believe you’ve become a Tea Partier.

                    14. for saying one thing at election time and doing another on the floor of Congress. It’s called hypocrisy, and everyone but you knows it for what it is. I can see that I have to slow it WAY down for you.

                      And I’ve NEVER had the stigma of Republican stink on me. I’ve voted for a few in the past (most recently in the last election, when I voted against Romer because I knew he was going to abandon his state Senate seat and leave it up to a committee to select his successor instead of the people), but ever identifying as one? My hands (and soul) are clean of that stain.

                    15. I know you like to picture yourself in the vanguard, but your ignominious expulsion from redstate, your reported party office loss in Fort Collins (that was you, wasn’t it? The person matched your description), and your zero-traffic blog pretty much show the measure of your distance from the “forefront.”

                    16. You’re too late, it’s already been done. And how the heck would you know how much traffic my blog gets? It’s actually not too bad.

                    17. wouldn’t a loss be an indication that I was at the forefront of criticizing the GOP?

                    18. where’s your outrage over the failure to repeal the oil company subsidies? You know, the one that all the Senate Republicans voted down? (We’re not counting those RINOs from Maine as ‘pubs.)

                    19. But we all know that’s not the real problem; just Dems putting on a show in an attempt to cover their butts. What was it, a few billion dollars? The real problem is overspending to the tune of trillions.

                    20. You can’t save $1000 without first saving $100. And the GOP failed to live up to their word in a big way.

                    21. The GOP did not promise to increase taxes. They promised to cut spending. That they have done, and would have done a lot more of had Obama and the Senate Dems not been standing in the way. Good to know you guys are all in favor of the RSCC budget cutting $9 trillion though. I hope Harry Reid agrees with you.

                    22. I know your real world experience is limited. So, here’s how income taxes work.

                      You make a certain income level, you pay a certain percentage of tax. That’s how they determine what you owe. Pretty simple, eh?

                      What makes it a bit more complicated are all the breaks individuals and corporations are eligible for. Some of these affect the total income you report (e.g., itemized deductions), and others are outright credited out of what you owe. But changing those breaks doesn’t change the tax, which is determined by a table.. Only changing the tax rate changes the tax.

                      So, if you get rid of a break, you haven’t “increased taxes,” you just got rid of a break that not everyone gets to enjoy.

                      What could be more fair?

                    23. no matter how you try to spin it. If “eliminating a tax break” makes somebody pay more, than it is a tax increase.

                    24. By your reasoning, if tax rates don’t change from year to year, but your income goes up, your taxes have gone up too.

                      No, that’s not how things work.

                    25. Most tax breaks are counted as percentages, genius. The only one that’s not is the Making Work Pay credit, which is stupid. What good does it do to give everybody $400 other than decrease the value of the dollar correspondingly.

                    26. There’s still this table – you’ll find it in every 1040 booklet – that lists incomes and income rates. Breaks aren’t part of it. And ending a break that an industry no longer needs isn’t “raising taxes.” It’s ending a break that the industry doesn’t need.

                      See, this is why nobody, not even your fellow Republicans, respect you.

                    27. Oil and gas gets $16 billion in taxpayer subsidies every year.

                      Is there some $14 trillion line-item that we’re not aware of? The only way you reduce the $14 trillion debt is to cut a bunch of things that cost several billion each.

                      And please spare us the line about “increasing taxes.” There are oil companies that make billions in profits that pay nothing in federal tax in a given year. Would it be an increase to ask them to pay something in taxes? Semantically, yes, but shouldn’t they have to pay some amount of taxes? Nobody is saying that oil companies should pay more in taxes than other companies, but they should at least pay taxes, don’t you think?

                    28. However, $16 billion is chump change. We borrow that every few days. The real issues are entitlement reform (which Dems are against – in fact they’re openly admitting* that they’re going to demagogue the issues by scaring seniors about Paul Ryan’s plan to keep Medicare solvent), along with the three wars and some discretionary spending. I wasn’t jumping for joy about the $60 billion that congress supposedly cut from last year’s budget, and I’m certainly not going to bat an eye at $16 billion. The deficit is $1500 billion, about 10,000% of the tax breaks you’re talking about.

                      *I’m assuming you read the email

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