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Wonkbook: Five ways to fix the euro zone

at 08:04 AM ET, 05/08/2012

So is Germany ready to renegotiate the terms of the euro zone? Nope. "We in Germany, and me personally, are of the opinion that the fiscal pact is nonnegotiable," German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters. "I consider the fiscal pact to be right and I think there is a basic process in Europe that we agree that after elections, whether in big countries or little countries, we cannot just put everything up for discussion that was negotiated previously."


A man walks past a closed store with a sign reading "Total clearance closure" in downtown Madrid on April 19, 2012. (ANDREA COMAS - REUTERS)
That's a reasonable position so far as process goes: Treaties aren't worth much if they need to be renegotiated after every election. But it's not a reasonable position so far as policy goes.

The reason for austerity's deep unpopularity isn't particularly complicated: It's not, on any level, working, except perhaps to give the Germans political room to negotiate (inadequate) bailouts. It hasn't stabilized borrowing costs for the endangered countries. It hasn't brightened growth prospects for the continent. And it's proving politically unsustainable, too, as countries vote in new governments who've promised to renegotiate the terms of the pact. If the euro zone is going to survive, it needs to try something new.

So what else could the euro zone do? My colleague Brad Plumer has compiled just such a list, and rather than summarize it, I'm going to let you read it in full. So here's Brad with five policies that various experts have suggested that the euro zone might consider instead, and one that no one wants:

1) More inflation from the European Central Bank. More economic growth would make Europe’s problems a lot easier to handle. If Spain and Italy were growing at a healthy clip, their deficits would naturally shrink. One institution that could, potentially, help the euro zone grow faster is the European Central Bank. Here’s Paul Krugman: “The Continent needs more expansionary monetary policies, in the form of a willingness — an announced willingness — on the part of the European Central Bank to accept somewhat higher inflation.” More inflation would help uncompetitive countries like Spain bring down their costs more quickly, and it would potentially spur more spending and growth.

The problem? Both Germany and Europe’s central bank have long been temperamentally hawkish on inflation. Most recently, the ECB declined to cut interest rates, even though the euro zone is tumbling back into yet another recession.

2) More stimulus from euro zone countries that are in sound budget shape. It would be hard for countries like Greece or Spain to borrow money now and spend it on stimulus projects, with the promise of cutting spending later once the economy’s improved. As Joe Gagnon told me a while back, there’s no way to make that promise of future austerity credible — unlike in the United States, where there’s lots of policy inertia, future European parliaments can easily undo past pledges. Lenders would likely balk.

But just because Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal and others have to rein in their budgets doesn’t mean everyone in the euro zone necessarily has to follow suit. Joseph Stiglitz, for one, has called on wealthier countries such as Germany to invest more in infrastructure and technology to stimulate Europe’s economy. “I hope,” Stiglitz said, “the debate will be what are the things we can do to promote growth rather than how do we strangle each other together.”

3) Open the bailout fund for bigger countries. Right now, Europe’s wealthy countries have bailed out smaller peripheral countries such as Ireland, Portugal and Greece. But some commentators think the bailout fund may need to get even bigger — and extend to countries that threaten to haul down the whole euro zone, like Spain.

Here’s Wolfgang Munchau, writing in the Financial Times: “Fixing the Spanish crisis will have to start with the banks. … The only halfway benign solution I can see would involve a European rescue programme for Spain that focuses specifically on the recapitalisation and downsizing of the financial sector. Spain would also need to undershoot the eurozone’s average inflation rate over many years to redress some of the lost price competitiveness. At the same time, the country needs to go easy on austerity.” The trouble, again, is that this will require more money from wealthy countries like France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Finland.

4) Eurobonds. Many individual members of the euro zone have large budget deficits. Spain’s is 8.5 percent. Ireland’s is 13.1 percent. But if you look at the euro zone as a single entity, things look better. Last year, the euro zone’s deficit was just 4.1 percent of GDP — less than half of the United States’. In theory, Europe should be able to borrow money at fairly cheap rates if it could issue a single bond for the entire continent. And that would give the euro zone some breathing room to deal with its current woes. Many Europeans, from politicians like Hollande to commentators like Gavyn Davies, have called for just such a “eurobond.”

But there are all sorts of hitches. If the euro zone had one single bond, then countries like Spain and Italy would see their borrowing costs fall, but countries like Germany and Finland would have to pay more to borrow money. It could also create moral hazard — spendthrift countries would feel less pressure from investors to rein in their debts. The Economist’s Ryan Avent recently ran through a few proposals from European think tanks to surmount these problems.

5) More fiscal integration. The euro zone, as we’ve seen, is made up of a bunch of wildly disparate countries. German workers are much more productive than Spanish workers, for instance. And that makes it hard for Spain to compete as long as it’s using a currency, the euro, that’s better-suited for more productive workers in Germany.

One idea, then, has been for the euro zone to do what the United States does and redistribute resources from rich to poor. As James Galbraith explained here, the U.S. has long used programs such as Social Security or unemployment insurance or the TVA to lift up the poorer regions and make sure that states don’t implode when they fall into recession. Hollande, for one, has suggested that Europe move in this direction, with wealthier states funding a bigger European Investment Bank that can bankroll industrial projects in poorer countries.

But is that enough? One problem is that thorough fiscal integration could involve some truly colossal sums. Remember, West Germany spent $1.9 trillion over 20 years in an attempt to modernize East Germany. And, because there were no language barriers, millions of East Germans could simply migrate West. Greek and Portuguese workers would have a tougher time doing that.

6) Countries could just start leaving the euro zone. Of course, it’s possible that none of the above ideas would work. Germany doesn’t exactly sound thrilled with the idea of expending further vast resources to prop up countries like Italy and Spain and Greece.

In that case, it’s always possible that individual nations could decide that being part of the euro is an unworkable idea and just leave. Jacob Goldstein explains how this would work for Greece. The country would default on its debt and would no longer have to keep spending money on interest payments. It could also devalue its currency in order to make its exports more competitive. Of course, in the short run, foreign investors would flee Greece, the country would have to slash spending considerably, and its economy would likely collapse.

As Slate’s Matt Yglesias writes, “If Greece tried to exit the [euro] — or more likely was forced out by Spain or Italy cutting the cord — they’d be in for a dose of much more severe austerity. Think about Greek living standards converging with Serbia and Bulgaria.” Still, the fact that it’s a painful option doesn’t mean it’s not an option.

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Top stories

1) Germany won't back down on austerity. "The world will be watching closely when French President-elect François Hollande meets with German Chancellor Angela Merkel for early clues on how willing the two leaders are to reconcile their approaches to resolving the euro-zone crisis...Ms. Merkel and her government, fearful of popular resistance in Germany, have made clear in recent weeks that they won't soften their austerity demands embodied in a fiscal pact, a point the German leader reiterated on Monday. 'We in Germany, and me personally, are of the opinion that the fiscal pact is nonnegotiable,' Ms. Merkel told reporters at her party's headquarters in Berlin. 'I consider the fiscal pact to be right and I think there is a basic process in Europe that we agree that after elections, whether in big countries or little countries, we cannot just put everything up for discussion that was negotiated previously.'" Gabriele Parussini and William Boston in The Wall Street Journal.

2) Greece may be headed towards a repeat election. "Greece is bracing for a repeat general election after its centre-right leader failed to win leftwing support to form a 'national salvation government' in the wake of Sunday’s inconclusive outcome at the polls...The repeat election would probably take place on June 17, he said...The stalemate puts at risk the timetable for disbursement of Greece’s next loan tranche from its second €174bn bailout. Despite a recent transfer of €3.5bn to cover financial emergencies, the country faces being unable to meet pension, salary and debt commitments next month...Antonis Samaras, whose New Democracy party finished first but fell well short of a parliamentary majority, on Monday proposed a coalition of pro-reform parties to ensure Greece remains in the eurozone...But Alexis Tsipras, on a roll after his leftwing coalition Syriza vaulted into second place, almost quadrupling its share of the vote, rejected the offer outright." Kerin Hope in The Financial Times.

@chrislhayes: The entire post-war European system was designed & constructed to produce economic security and avoid crisis and radicalization.

3) The House GOP's plan to cut health-care spending rather than defense passed out of the Budget Committee. "House Republicans, seeking to prevent defense-spending cuts at the end of the year, advanced a plan that would instead reduce spending on health-care programs, food aid and other major domestic initiatives of the Obama administration. The bill developed by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) would cut about $261 billion in domestic spending over the next decade and roll back portions of the 2010 health-care law and the Dodd-Frank financial overhaul. It was approved Monday by the House Budget Committee on a 21-9 party line vote and likely will be approved by the House later this week. But it is a dead letter in the Senate because the cuts in the social safety net are anathema to Democrats who control that chamber...A sizable portion of the domestic cuts in the House GOP bill come from programs benefiting the poor, including food stamps, Medicaid, and a child tax credit." Janet Hook and Damian Paletta in The Wall Street Journal.

@sahilkapur: In Budget hearing, Rep. Doggett (D) holds up sign calling GOP bill "Wreckonciliation"; Camera pans to Paul Ryan grinning from ear to ear.

4) Low expectations greet the highway bill negotiations. "The committee of lawmakers appointed to negotiate a new federal highway bill will meet for the first time Tuesday, beginning their talks amid low expectations for a deal in a charged election-year environment. Many observers, including Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, have expressed doubt that Congress will pass a multiyear bill before the November election. But leaders of the 47-member panel from both House and Senate say they have a blueprint -- hewing closely to their respective chamber’s approach -- for the talks to defy the seemingly long odds...The talks are likely to center, at least at the outset, on a controversial cross-country pipeline that has emerged as an anti-Obama rallying cry for Republicans. The House version of the transportation and infrastructure bill approves the Keystone XL pipeline to bring Canadian oil sands to Gulf Coast refineries." Keith Laing in The Hill.

5) Sen. David Vitter is blocking the confirmation of any Fed nominees before the election. "President Barack Obama's two nominees to the Federal Reserve appear likely to fall victim to a long-running political feud, which would leave the central bank short-handed as it struggles with tough regulatory and monetary policy questions. Republican Senator David Vitter has demanded that the Senate hold a debate before any vote on the nominees, which would require Democratic leaders to muster a super majority to move forward - a hurdle that may be too high to clear. As a result, the Senate may end up abandoning the nominees, Harvard economist Jeremy Stein and investment banker Jerome Powell, and leave a decision on filling out the normally seven-member Fed board until after this year's presidential election...Leaving the central bank short-staffed deprives it of top-notch monetary policy and financial market expertise that could prove valuable given the stop-and-go nature of the U.S. recovery and economic threats coming from Europe." Mark Felsenthal and David Lawder in Reuters.

@BCAppelbaum: News of the Vitter hold is like learning the results of an autopsy. The outcome was clear; now we know the proximate cause.

@justinwolfers: I don't know a single serious economic--left or right--who thinks putting a hold on Stein & Powell is a good idea. I bet you can't find one.

Top op-eds

1) STIGLITZ: The ECB could pave the way for growth in Europe. "This we should know by now: markets on their own are not stable. Not only do they repeatedly generate destabilizing asset bubbles, but, when demand weakens, forces that exacerbate the downturn come into play...States with balanced-budget frameworks are forced to cut spending as tax revenues fall - an automatic destabilizer that Europe seems mindlessly bent on adopting...Europe as a whole is not in bad fiscal shape; its debt-to-GDP ratio compares favorably with that of the United States. If each US state were totally responsible for its own budget, including paying all unemployment benefits, America, too, would be in fiscal crisis. The lesson is obvious: the whole is more than the sum of its parts. If Europe - particularly the European Central Bank - were to borrow, and re-lend the proceeds, the costs of servicing Europe’s debt would fall, creating room for the kinds of expenditure that would promote growth and employment." Joseph Stiglitz in Project Syndicate.

2) BROOKS: The economy needs structural change, not stimulus. "Many people on the left are having a one-sided debate about how to deal with a cyclical downturn. The main argument you hear from these cyclicalists is that the economy is operating well below capacity. To get it moving at full speed, the government should borrow and spend more. The federal government is now running deficits of about $1 trillion a year. Some of these cyclicalists believe the deficit should be about $1.4 trillion...Other people -- some on the left but mostly in the center and on the right -- look at the cyclicalists and shrug. It’s not that they are necessarily wrong to bash excessive austerity. They’re simply failing to address the core issues. The diverse people in this camp -- and I’m one of them -- believe the core problems are structural, not cyclical. The recession grew out of and exposed long-term flaws in the economy. Fixing these structural problems should be the order of the day, not papering over them with more debt." David Brooks in The New York Times.

3) KLEIN: Larry Summers is taking on 'the economy needs structural change, not stimulus" types. "Rajan’s commentary is perhaps the clearest manifesto yet from the school of post-recession thought that I’ve come to think of as 'the long-termers.' The long-termers don’t deny the enormous and ongoing human suffering caused by the recession. They don’t argue that the best course is passivity. Rather, they argue that there’s not much that we can or should do in the short run, and so we may as well focus on long-run issues such as the design of the tax code and the quality of our schools. But as Summers sees it, the short run has a nasty tendency to become the long run. 'The evidence is that cyclical problems harden into structural problems,” he says, “because people who have been out of work for a year lose their ability to work.'" Ezra Klein in the Washington Post .

4) REYNOLDS: Saez and Piketty are wrong about taxes. "The first paper, by Peter Diamond of MIT and Emmanuel Saez of the University of California, Berkeley, appeared in the Journal of Economic Perspectives last August. The second, by Mr. Saez, along with Thomas Piketty of the Paris School of Economics and Stefanie Stantcheva of MIT, was published by the National Bureau of Economic Research three months later...Messrs. Diamond and Saez's 2011 paper ignores all studies of elasticity among the top 1%, and instead chooses a midpoint of 0.25 between one uniquely low estimate of 0.12 for gross income among all taxpayers (from a 2004 study by Mr. Saez and Jonathan Gruber of MIT) and the 0.40 ETI norm from 30 other studies. That made-up estimate of 0.25 is the sole basis for the claim by Messrs. Diamond and Saez in their 2011 paper that tax rates could reach 73% without losing revenue." Alan Reynolds in The Wall Street Journal.

5) SACHS: Scandinavian structuralists point the way. "French and Greek voters have rejected Europe’s current macroeconomic framework. The headlines cry that voters demand growth rather than austerity. Yet growth is not a policy but an outcome. A vote rejecting the incumbents does not define the policy alternatives...Macroeconomic debates are mostly ideological rather than empirical. This is a shame. The diverse experiences across the OECD economies can clarify a lot about the various schools of thought. Of all the high-income countries, it is the northern European countries, including social democratic Scandinavia and the Netherlands, and social-market Germany, that have the most favorable combination of low budget deficits, high employment, and global competitiveness. Of course the specific challenges and current conditions differ by country, and so too will the best packages." Jeffrey Sachs in The Financial Times.

Singer-songwriter interlude: Joshua Radin plays "I'd Rather Be With You" live on Smooth Radio.

Got tips, additions, or comments? E-mail me.

Still to come: Taxpayers could profit from AIG; obesity's rise will continue; the Senate filled vacant seats at the FCC; the government is set to approve more drilling; and a elephant shows off its talent for the harmonica.

Economy

Consumer borrowing saw its biggest jump in over a decade. "Americans are stepping up their borrowing, possibly a good sign for the economy as households become less determined to whittle debt and more willing to spend. Consumer borrowing on credit cards, car loans, student loans and other types of installment debt grew at a seasonally adjusted 10.2% annual rate to $2.54 trillion in March from February, the Federal Reserve said Monday. Mortgages aren't included in the tally. March's climb was the biggest monthly leap since November 2001, when zero-percent financing on car loans touched off a surge in borrowing after the September 11 terror attacks...Economists say it isn't clear yet whether the shift reflects consumers becoming more confident in a strengthening economy or strained households feeling the need to borrow...Banks appear to have loosened lending standards a bit and may be giving consumers more access to credit." Josh Mitchell in The Wall Street Journal.

Senate Republicans will filibuster the student loan bill over offsets. "Despite a desire to pass legislation to forestall an increase in student loan interest rates, Republicans are expected to filibuster a Democratic student loan relief measure in a bid to change the offset. 'We’ll defeat cloture on' the Democrat’s bill, said Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.). The Senate is slated to vote Tuesday at noon on a motion to invoke cloture, or limit debate, on the motion to proceed to the bill. The cloture motion requires 60 votes to beat back a filibuster and move forward on the measure. Last week, Senate Republicans had signaled a willingness to at least move on to the bill and appeared inclined to give Democrat the 60 votes needed...The Democratic student loan bill would cover the $6 billion cost of preventing the rise in interest rates by eliminating a corporate tax loophole that allows wealthy individuals to pay less in Social Security and Medicare taxes. Republicans oppose the offset because they believe it would hurt job creation." Humberto Sanchez in Roll Call.

The White House threatened a veto of a spending bill that undercuts the debt-ceiling deal. "The White House on Monday threatened to veto a bill funding the Commerce and Justice departments that is slated to come to the House floor on Tuesday. The House GOP bill provides $51.1 billion in funding, a reduction of $1.6 billion below last year’s level. The top problem for President Obama with the bill is that it is part of an overall effort to cut $27 billion from domestic programs compared to the August debt ceiling deal’s Budget Control Act (BCA) while increasing weapons spending...The White House has said that Obama will sign none of the 12 annual spending bills, even if they make it through the Democratic Senate, unless the House GOP abandons its overall budget plans...The veto threat says the bill does not contain enough funding for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Census Bureau, International Trade Administration (ITA), Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR ) and community policy programs." Erik Wasson in The Hill.

@jonathanweisman: WH makes good on pledge, threatens to veto first spending bill to House floor cuz it is lower than July spending deal, cuts NOAA, COPS, NASA

Taxpayers could make a profit on the AIG bailout. "Taxpayers could make a profit of up to $15.1 billion on the emergency assistance extended to American International Group during the financial crisis, the Government Accountability Office said Monday. The Federal Reserve and the Treasury made available more than $180 billion in aid to the struggling financial giant in 2008...'Based on the composition of the remaining federal assistance to AIG [and] the repayment and recovery progress thus far on all assistance . . . the government could receive total returns of approximately $15.1 billion in excess of the assistance provided, including interest, dividends, and fees,' the GAO said in its report. The GAO report noted, however, that those gains do not reflect the 'subsidy costs associated with the assistance.' The GAO did not calculate such costs, which relate to the compensation the government received in exchange for taking on great risks in 2008." Zachary Goldfarb in The Washington Post.

Robots are cool interlude: The first successful perching on a human hand by a robotic bird airplane.

Health Care

Obesity is projected to continue its rise. "Obesity in the United States is projected to continue its rise over the next 18 years, extending to 42% of Americans by 2030, according to a study released Monday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That expected growth in the proportion of obese Americans -- up from 34% -- contained good news and bad: Obesity's growth has slowed from the record-setting pace that has marked most of the last three decades; at the same time, the numbers of the severely obese -- those carrying 80 or more pounds more than the healthy, normal weight for their height -- is expected to grow by 130%. The continued growth in obesity will be expensive, said CDC statisticians: Additional spending on healthcare for Americans who will join the ranks of the obese in the next 18 years was projected to reach $549.5 billion over the next two decades." Melissa Healy in The Los Angeles Times.

The House is set to begin mark up on the FDA bill. "Congress is quickly moving ahead on a must-pass Food and Drug Administration bill, and so far, negotiators have been able to avert any major controversies. The House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Health Subcommittee is set to mark up its FDA bill Tuesday, and lawmakers are hoping to convene a full-committee markup just two days later. Congress has until Sept. 31 -- the end of the fiscal year -- to reauthorize the user fees that the FDA collects from drug and medical device companies. The fees have to be renewed every five years, and the reauthorization usually becomes a vehicle for broader policy changes. Energy and Commerce Republicans released their bill Friday, and seemed to steer clear of the biggest potential fault lines -- such as proposals to alter the FDA’s core mission...The agency would lose a big chunk of important funding if the fees were allowed to run out." Sam Baker in The Hill.

Domestic Policy

The Senate approved two FCC nominees. "The Senate unanimously approved two nominees to fill vacant seats at the Federal Communications Commission Monday, ending a months-long standoff that left the agency at less than full strength. On Monday, the Senate confirmed Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat, and Ajit Pai, a Republican, to fill two empty seats on the FCC's five-member board. Both are former Senate and FCC staffers who easily got a nod of approval from the Senate Commerce Committee last year after a confirmation hearing. Although neither nominee drew significant criticism from lawmakers, their nominations were stalled for months because of a hold by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa), who was upset that the FCC didn't give him documents related to wireless startup LightSquared...Ms. Rosenworcel will fill a seat left open by former FCC commissioner Michael Copps...Mr. Pai fills a seat left open by Meredith Attwell Baker, who left the FCC to become NBC's top lobbyist." Amy Schatz in The Wall Street Journal.

Musical animals interlude: Shanthi the elephant plays the harmonica.

Energy

Gas prices are declining sharply. "Gasoline prices fell for the fifth consecutive week, extending a sharp decline that has eased fears that prices would soon top $4 a gallon at the pump. The average price of regular gasoline dropped to $3.790 a gallon as of Monday, the U.S. Energy Information Administration said, down 3.8% from the 2012 peak of $3.941 reached April 2. Many of the forces that drove gasoline up are reversing, and that is helping bring prices back down, though they still remain near record highs. Tensions over Iran's nuclear program have eased, while softening economies in the U.S. and Europe have curbed demand. At the same time, some refineries pegged for closure are coming back online, and bottlenecks in the supply of crude oil are becoming unclogged. The changes have led analysts to temper their price predictions for the summer driving season. A few months ago, some were saying pump prices could shoot above $4 a gallon and even reach $5 by the summer, but now they say that is highly unlikely." Liam Pleven in The Wall Street Journal.

@morningmoneyben: Remember when everyone freaked about gas prices? They are going down. Has Romney claimed credit yet?

Mitt Romney's EPA might not be the radically different agency he envisions. "Mitt Romney isn’t certain about climate change, wants to reverse or halt a handful of the Obama administration’s environmental policies and would put the interests of business -- and Congress -- before the will of one of the executive branch’s most embattled agencies. But what really happens at Romney’s Environmental Protection Agency? Romney may talk a big game, but the reality is he’ll face significant roadblocks in Congress and the courts that may make wholesale change difficult. Moving new environmental legislation -- particularly to weaken current laws -- would prove difficult at best in such a divided Congress, which struggles to coalesce on nearly anything. And the courts -- tasked with interpreting the environmental legislation that is often deliberately vague, complicated and designed to rest on scientific information -- can often order the EPA to take action or revise legislation." Erica Martinson in Politico.

The U.S. is set to approve a substantial natural gas drilling plan. "U.S. officials are expected Tuesday to approve a plan by Anadarko Petroleum Corp. to drill 3,700 natural-gas wells in eastern Utah, capping a yearslong review of a project that will be one of the largest in the region. Approval for the Greater Natural Buttes project in the Uintah Basin, to be announced by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, comes as the Obama administration is supporting natural-gas production...The Greater Natural Buttes project is the uncommon case in which an energy company won the support of environmental groups, which are often vocal critics of oil and natural-gas development. Anadarko agreed to pull previous proposals to expand drilling to new areas, including parts of a proposed red-rock wilderness area...instead, Anadarko said in its environmental-impact statement, its wells would be drilled from existing wellpads, using technology that allows the well to curve away from a straight-down path and tap new deposits." Tennille Tracy and Jim Carlton in The Wall Street Journal.

Republicans will attempt to block funding for lightbulb efficiency standards. "A House Republican is planning in the coming weeks to revive the GOP offensive against federal lightbulb efficiency standards. Rep. Michael Burgess (R-Texas) will offer an amendment to Energy Department spending legislation that would block funding for implementation of the standards, the lawmaker's office told The Hill. The standards have come under fire from conservatives in recent years. Republicans won the inclusion of a similar provision in an omnibus spending compromise that House and Senate lawmakers agreed to in December. The provision blocked funding for implementation of the law for fiscal year 2012. Burgess’ amendment would apply to fiscal year 2013...The House Appropriations committee approved the Energy Department’s fiscal 2013 spending bill late last month. The legislation is expected to come up for a floor vote in the coming weeks." Andrew Restuccia in The Hill.

Wonkbook is compiled and produced with help from Karl Singer and Michelle Williams.

 
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