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Collusion "is an agreement among firms or individuals to divide a market, set prices, limit production or limit opportunities."

Under capitalism, it is possible that an industry could collude with its competitors to artificially set prices high so as to maximize profit. Is such an act immoral? Should it be illegal?

asked Feb 14 '13 at 11:46

JK%20Gregg's gravatar image

JK Gregg ♦
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edited Feb 19 '13 at 09:04

It is immoral in every sense of the word to tell a man what to do with his property and to dictate with whom he is allowed to do business with. Two or more businessmen have every right to collaborate together to make a more efficient economy. In the United States, it is illegal for "collusion" to be conspired because it eliminates competition and increases prices. Ayn Rand wrote in the New Intellectual that a mixed economy is more dangerous than an all-out communist-run economy because the market reacts differently with regulations and taxation. People get convinced capitalism is bad.

(Feb 14 '13 at 21:47) Collin1 Collin1's gravatar image

That's not a good definition of collusion. And what does it mean to set prices "artificially"?

This question, and anti-trust law in general, seems to based on the absurd notion of "perfect competition".

It is moral to cooperate with others in your industry, when, and only when, doing so is in your self-interest. It's hard to be more specific, because collusion is generally illegal, because doing things which are illegal is generally not in one's self-interest, and because even when doing something illegal is in one's self-interest, it is illegal for me to encourage it.

(Feb 15 '13 at 07:51) anthony anthony's gravatar image

One place collusion generally isn't illegal is among employees. If you can get together with a group of your co-workers and collude to demand, and successfully obtain, higher wages (e.g. "raise everyone's salary by 10% or we all quit"), this is a moral thing to do.

And I'm not an attorney, but I'm pretty sure it's legal too.

(Feb 15 '13 at 08:13) anthony anthony's gravatar image

"artificially set prices low so as to maximize profit." ??? If company A sets it's price 0.01¢ over production cost, and company B sets it's price to the same, but it is 0.02¢ over production cost - who has maximized their profit?

(Feb 18 '13 at 00:58) dream_weaver ♦ dream_weaver's gravatar image

No, it is not immoral. They may dispense/offer their property for sale according to whichever terms they feel is appropriate. However, in a textbook collusion case, prices are set high to increase industry profits. In the short term, this will gouge consumers without a doubt. In the long run however, large profits attract new competitors eager to enter the industry and gobble up market share through lower prices to quickly gain access to profits. The ability to collude decreases exponentially with the number of parties involved. Collusion between 2 or 3 maybe... collusion between 10? Not likel

(Feb 18 '13 at 13:27) Sergio Sergio's gravatar image

Dream_weaver, I've corrected my question. I meant to say "high."

(Feb 19 '13 at 09:04) JK Gregg ♦ JK%20Gregg's gravatar image

But what constitutes "artificially" setting prices in a way expected to maximize profits? Aren't prices supposed to be set to maximize profits? If not, what is the "natural" price?

(Feb 20 '13 at 06:57) anthony anthony's gravatar image

Collision among 10 parties is only unlikely where it is illegal, and therefore there's no way to punish defection (or internationally, for the same reasons). Where collusion is legal, among firms in the same legal jurisdiction, you just enter into a contractual agreement to collude.

(Feb 24 '13 at 07:56) anthony anthony's gravatar image
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The question starts with an erroneous assumption about free markets and turns it into a moral issue:

Under capitalism, it is possible that an industry could collude with its competitors to artificially set prices high so as to maximize profit.

In a free market, producers have no way to force consumers to continue buying a product whose price is higher than consumers are able and willing to spend on it. There will always be some reduction in buyers as a result of higher prices, even if many other buyers are willing to keep paying the higher prices. As long as buyers are free to buy alternatives, as they would be in a free market, some number of them will do so in the course of seeking to maximize their own gains.

Furthermore, in a free market, producers have no way to force other producers not to enter the market for a particular product and compete with existing producers, if the price level is high enough to be profitable for the new entrants. The new producers would be able to offer the product at a slightly lower price to attract more buyers, and the existing producers could not do anything to stop it without lowering their own prices in response. The new entrants might range from very small newcomers to very large, established firms that hitherto found it insufficiently profitable to compete in the allegedly "colluded" market.

With a proper understanding of how a free market works, the alleged moral "problem of collusion" ceases to be a major issue. Note that what happens in a mixed economy is likely to be very different, with a mixed economy's pressure on producers to obtain favorable treatment from the government, and the government's power to impose altruistic goals onto free markets everywhere.

Note also that even if free markets did make collusion profitable without inducing new producers to enter the market, it would still be true that the product was created by someone, and the creator is morally entitled by his effort and initiative to charge whatever price he wants to charge, even if a higher price would actually mean loss of profits because of loss of buyers. It is a huge mistake to assume that higher prices automatically mean higher profits in a free market. It's more likely (though still far from certain) in a mixed economy, with freedom-infringing government mandates and prohibitions everywhere -- which is why controls breed more controls.

Update: The System of Individual Rights

The comments raise questions about the "classical economic view of perfect competition driving prices down to marginal cost...." Articles have been published in the literature of Objectivism rejecting this view. For example, the following can be found in the topic of "Competition" in The Ayn Rand Lexicon:

The competition which takes place under capitalism acts to regulate prices simply in accordance with the full costs of production and with the requirements of earning a rate of profit. It does not act to drive prices to the level of "marginal costs" or to the point where they reflect a "scarcity" of capacity.

This excerpt is from an article in the August 1968 issue of The Objectivist titled, "Platonic Competition," a concept which the article criticizes and rejects. In fact, it is precisely this view of "pure and perfect competition" that provides the economic "case" for anti-trust laws.

Objectivism views capitalism primarily as the system of individual rights, not primarily as the system of competition or the system of "private ownership of the means of production." Individual rights include property rights, including intellectual property rights, which means patents, copyrights, trademarks, and the like. Note that intellectual property rights do not extend into perpetuity; they last for a specific time, as a consequence and recognition of the individual thought and initiative that brought the "means of production" (and property of any kind) into existence in a form that could be of value to man's life. Intellectual property certainly does not invalidate capitalism, properly defined.

The same commenter also states: "Under perfect competition I could get a $400 billion dollar loan with which I could instantly build factories producing perfect replicas of the iPhone, which I could then legally sell under the name "iPhone" for $199." This example illustrates why free markets are not a system of so-called "perfect competition" (also aptly described as "Platonic competition"). Laissez-faire capitaism consistently upholds intellectual property rights (and individual rights of any kind); it does not abrogate them.

Update: Free-Market Price-Setting

One of the newest Objectivist books on economic issues that is almost at the top of my reading list at present is Free Market Revolution by Yaron Brook and Don Watkins. Although I haven't had time to read it yet (as I continue reading Dr. Peikoff's book on the DIM Hypothesis), I did run across the following passage specifically on collusion and competition in a free market (p. 146):

People often treat prices as if they could be set arbitrarily by producers. When gas prices go up, for instance, we accuse oil companies of greedily "gouging" us. But why, then, do gas prices ever fall? And why, when they do fall, don't we thank oil companies for their generosity? The truth is that businesses don't arbitrarily raise prices in order to exploit consumers, any more than they arbitrarily drop prices in order to altruistically benefit consumers at the expense of their own profits. On a free market, prices are the product of voluntary trade and reflect facts of supply and demand. Prices are at once a prouct of individuals pursuing their own self-interest and a means by which individuals coordinate their economic goals in concert with others.

I have attempted, perhaps inadequately, to concretize this perspective on free-market price-setting in my original answer. I hope that my answer, along with its updates and applicable comments, including the various references I have cited, will prove helpful to the readers of this website.

Update: Free-Market Economics

Free-market price-setting still seems to be a disputed topic in the comments. The basic principle, as I understand it, is supply and demand. I.e., the average price of something generally tends to rise or fall to the level that balances the available supply with the available monetary demand. Mathematically, P = D/S. This is actually a mathematical identity if D is the total monetary spending for a particular type of item, and S is the total quantity sold. If the price is set too high, some of the available supply remains unsold. If the price is set too low, the available supply becomes exhausted sooner than it could have been, with correspondingly lower total revenue and lower net profit. I must emphasize again that this is a description of a free market. Government intervention can impede the law of supply and demand and distort the operation of markets.

Here is how Yaron Brook and Don Watkins describe price setting in their book, Free Market Revolution, p. 153:

We've seen that market prices aren't arbitrary -- they are determined by the facts of supply and demand. But government edicts concerning what prices "should" be are arbitrary. Economists call these price controls, and they devastate economic coordination. When the government sets prices above the market price, supply exceeds demand and there is a glut of products no one wants to buy. When it sets prices below the market price, demand exceeds supply and shortages ensue.

A few pages later, in the Conclusion section of Chapter 10, the book explains (p. 159):

A capitalist economy is a free economy. When men are left free to pursue their self-interest, they divide up their labor, rendering it more productive; they use prices to coordinate their productive activities, they compete with one another for profits -- and they innovate their way to prosperity.

Ayn Rand provided a list of additional references at the end of her book, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. The economic references include Faustino Ballve, Frederic Bastiat, Eugen von Boehm-Bawerk, Henry Hazlitt, Isabel Paterson, Ludwig von Mises (8 reference works), and many others. My understanding is that Objectivism's endorsements are generally closer to the Austrian School of economics than to "classical economics" (refer to the Wikipedia entries on "Austrian school" and "Classical economics" for a rough indication of significant differences), but Objectivism does not fully endorse all the views of any of them, especially their philosophical views apart from their writings on economics. It must be remembered that there has never been a full moral defense of capitalism prior to Ayn Rand.

Update: Quantity Theory of Money

At least two comments from the same commenter express puzzlement over the equation, P = D/S. It is part of a segment of Austrian School economics known as the "quantity theory of money." D refers to aggregate demand, i.e., total monetary spending for a specific quantity (S) of goods and services within a specific time period. P refers to the average price per purchase. This equation can also be thought of as a definition of "average price." If n purchases occur in a time period t, and the prices of the purchases are denoted by P1, P2, P3, ... Pn, then the sum of all the Pi terms gives D, and S is simply the number of purchases involved in the analysis, namely, n in this example. One could also write: Pav = D/n.

There is also a second equation in the quantity theory of money: D = M x V, where D again refers to aggregate monetary demand, and M refers to the total number of monetary units (such as dollar units) involved in all the purchases for quantity S of goods and services within a specific time period. V is the average number of times each monetary unit is used in the purchases, also referred to as the "velocity of circulation." This equation, like the first one, can be viewed as a definition -- in this case, the definition of "average velocity of circulation," hence, the letter V.

More information about the quantity theory of money can be found in the Wikipedia article on "Quantity theory of money."

Since D is the same in both equations, the equations can be combined into the form, P x S = M x V, or P = M x V / S. The significance of this is that it highights the key factors that determine the overall average price level in the economy. Further historical analysis shows that P, the average level of prices, has increased by orders of magnitude over the decades, while V and S have changed far less than that. This leaves M, the quantity of money, as the most significant factor driving the average level of prices in the economy. M, in turn, is completely under the control of our government (for domestic economic activity).

Another comment also mentions:

If a cartel can agree to set prices higher for some subset of customers (which is equivalent to setting prices lower for the opposite subset) [?], then they can increase average prices without losing any buyers at all.

I don't quite follow what an "opposite subset" is, unless it is simply the entire population other than the targeted subset. I also don't follow why higher prices for some are "equivalent" to lower prices for all others. If the two subsets are consistently identifiable, then raising prices for one will result in fewer buyers from that subset, and lowering prices for the other subset will be likely to result in more buyers from the other subset. There would also be an economic incentive for buyers in the high-price group to shift over to the low-price group, to make their purchases at the lower price -- if they are free to do so. How this affects profits depends on which subset is larger and by how much.

This sounds like the same, or nearly the same, scenario as the original question. The answer, to repeat, is twofold. First, higher overall prices generally lead to fewer buyers, since even a cartel can't force buyers to buy the product, and the buyers may not be able to afford the product at the higher price even if they want more of it. Second, there will be competition for profits, as Yaron Brook points out in his book. If the prevailing price level is high enough to increase profitability, it will simultaneously create a financial incentive for new competitors to come into the market and compete for a share of the profits. A cartel can't prevent that in a free market. Large, long-established firms may find the prospect of higher profits particularly enticing, motivating them to enter markets that had hitherto remained less attractive from a profitability standpoint. Bear in mind, also, that the product offered by a competitor doesn't necessarily have to be identical to the product offered by the cartel. The competing product only needs to serve the same basic function for a user, to compete with the cartel's product.

This kind of cartel "collusion" has nothing to do with intellectual property, by the way, nor with property rights of any kind. Capitalism upholds property rights, as I pointed out before, and that is not what is normally meant by "collusion." If a dictionary definition includes protection of property rights as a form of "collusion to limit opportunities," it doesn't make sense. Property rights begin as an individual matter and are then subject to the possibility of trade among producers as well as trading with consumers (i.e., unrelated producers, since one needs to produce in order to be able to consume).

answered Feb 20 '13 at 01:11

Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

Ideas for Life ♦
467718

edited Mar 10 '13 at 01:53

I think you're relying a bit too much on classical economics there. There are lots of ways for producers to force other producers not to enter the market for a particular product. Intellectual property rights would be the major government mandated ones. Add to that all the natural ones like entry barriers, costs of re-education, limited availability of capital, differentiation of products, advertising, etc.

The classical economic view of perfect competition driving prices down to marginal cost is just plain wrong, and that has nothing to do with this being a mixed economy.

(Feb 20 '13 at 07:09) anthony anthony's gravatar image

Under perfect competition I could get a $400 billion dollar loan with which I could instantly build factories producing perfect replicas of the iPhone, which I could then legally sell under the name "iPhone" for $199. Consumers would be free to hook those phones up with any network they choose - my SIM cards would be identical to the ones in Apple-produced iPhones. Thus Apple computer would be forced to lower the price of their phones from $499 or more to the marginal cost of $199.

Here in the real world, Apple charges 250% of marginal cost.

(Feb 20 '13 at 07:17) anthony anthony's gravatar image

It's untrue that, "in a free market,producers have no way to force other producers not to enter the market for a particular product and compete with existing producers,if the price level is high enough to be profitable for the new entrants." Furthermore, one common way that firms use their market power is by setting price levels below the level profitable for new entrants, but above the level profitable for themselves and the co-colluding firms.

Collusion, as in entering into agreements with other firms to set prices at mutually beneficial levels, is profitable, at least when not illegal.

(Feb 24 '13 at 07:42) anthony anthony's gravatar image

"The new producers would be able to offer the product at a slightly lower price to attract more buyers, and the existing producers could not do anything to stop it without lowering their own prices in response."

This is the theory of perfect competition. It is incorrect. For one thing, there is no "the product". Every product is different. An iPhone knockoff is not an iPhone. Even a gold bar stamped "Credit Suisse" is different from a gold bar stamped "Joe's Gold Barn". Unlike the fantasy world of perfect competition, products are not homogeneous.

(Feb 24 '13 at 08:06) anthony anthony's gravatar image

Furthermore, no one is going to know about the "new producers" unless the "new producers" advertise. And advertising costs money. Unlike the fantasy world of perfect competition, consumers do not have perfect information.

The marginal cost at which these "new producers" can produce the product is higher than the marginal cost of the "existing producers". Unlike the fantasy world of perfect competition, there are start-up costs, there are not infinite buyers and sellers, and there are economies of scale.

Etc. etc. There is lots of opportunity for collusion in a free market.

(Feb 24 '13 at 08:08) anthony anthony's gravatar image

Anyway, in a free market, the solution to "the problem of collusion" is more collusion. If 3 phone companies collude to control the market for phone service, and the price they offer is unacceptable to a large portion of the consumers, then consumers (which would include businesses as well as individuals) need to collude to boycott those phone companies.

Boycotts are, of course, a form of collusion. And they're probably the most powerful threat against a monopoly or oligopoly. Competition from someone offering a slightly lower price is nothing compared to a credible threat of a boycott.

(Feb 24 '13 at 08:30) anthony anthony's gravatar image

"The truth is that businesses don't arbitrarily raise prices in order to exploit consumers".

Of course not. There's nothing arbitrary about it. As producers we systematically raise/lower prices in order to maximize our exploitation (1) of consumers (in most cases to maximize profits). At least, we do so to the extent this is allowed by law, to the extent we can figure out the consumers' demand curves (think auto sales negotiations), to the extent we can engage in "price discrimination", etc.

(1) Perhaps "maximize our exploitation" is redundant as to exploit is to use to maximum advantage.

(Feb 27 '13 at 06:01) anthony anthony's gravatar image

Why call it exploitation? Objectivism refers to trade as mutually beneficial. This reminds me of a scene in Atlas Shrugged, Part I, Chapter VI, where Francisco says to Rearden: "The only thing that's wrong in what you said ... is that you permit anyone to call it evil."

(Feb 28 '13 at 02:34) Ideas for Life ♦ Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

Why not call it exploitation? Much like selfishness, exploitation tends to have a negative connotation, but that negative connotation is a package-deal which I reject.

I didn't call exploitation evil. To exploit someone is to selfishly use them for the best possible use. Mutual trade is mutually exploitative. What's evil about that?

(Feb 28 '13 at 12:33) anthony anthony's gravatar image

ex·ploi·ta·tion

  1. use or utilization, especially for profit: the exploitation of newly discovered oil fields.

  2. selfish utilization: He got ahead through the exploitation of his friends.

  3. the combined, often varied, use of public-relations and advertising techniques to promote a person, movie, product, etc.

Seems like a legit use of the concept.

(Feb 28 '13 at 15:58) Humbug Humbug's gravatar image

The second meaning is closest to what I had in mind in the context of the original question and the ensuing discussions of it: "selfish utilization," as in the exploitation of one's friends. If one's goal is to express an Objectivist perspective accurately, such terminology needs careful clarification, as Ayn Rand provided in VOS for the terms "selfish" and "selfishness." She was emphatic that she was referring to rational selfishness, rational self-interest, rational egoism. She acknowledged at the outset that: "In popular usage, the word 'selfishness' is a synonym of evil; the image it conjures is of a murderous brute who tramples over piles of corpses to achieve his own ends, who cares for no living being and pursues nothing but the gratification of the mindless whims of any immediate moment." (p. vii) To use "exploitation" as an expression of Objectivism, one would need (in my understanding) to qualify it as rational exploitation proceeding from rational selfishness, and explain what that means. One would also need to emphasize that trade is a two-way process of mutually voluntary exchange for mutual benefit, not just a one-way exploitation of others, and that rational trading does not include or sanction willful deception of others or fraud. Indeed, the most fruitful trade relationships tend to be recurring; repeat business tends to be vital to the long-term success and viability of most enterprises. Customers who have been deceived or otherwise disappointed in past trading with a particular trader are less likely to return for future trading.

(Mar 01 '13 at 01:09) Ideas for Life ♦ Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

"Selfish utilization" was pretty close to the definition I was using as well.

Businesses systematically set prices in order to exploit consumers.

Of course, you are correct that deceiving or disappointing your customers tends to be a poor utilization of them. On the other hand, having nothing but lots of tremendously happy customers, who give lots of referrals, who keep coming back, and off whom you make very little profit, is also a poor utilization of them.

There are lots of factors in setting price optimally. Much more than a naiive classical economics analysis will tell you.

(Mar 01 '13 at 03:03) anthony anthony's gravatar image

"The basic principle, as I understand it, is supply and demand. I.e., the average price of something generally tends to rise or fall to the level that balances the available supply with the available monetary demand. Mathematically, P = D/S."

I'm not sure where you're getting this from. It's much more complicated than that, even under the mistaken teachings of classical economics. You seem to be implying that "available supply" is fixed, but available supply is actually a function of price.

Under classical economics, price equals marginal cost. But as you point out, this is incorrect.

(Mar 08 '13 at 10:15) anthony anthony's gravatar image

"Mathematically, P = D/S. This is actually a mathematical identity if D is the total monetary spending for a particular type of item, and S is the total quantity sold."

Even this is only correct if the price of every unit of a particular item is equal, which is perhaps true under the flawed assumption of "perfect competition", but untrue in reality.

In reality this isn't even true with regard to a single producer, let alone across the market as a whole. See, for instance, "price discrimination".

(Mar 08 '13 at 10:32) anthony anthony's gravatar image

This "price discrimination", incidentally, leads to a counterexample to "There will always be some reduction in buyers as a result of higher prices". If a cartel can agree to set prices higher for some subset of customers (which is equivalent to setting prices lower for the opposite subset), then they can increase average prices without losing any buyers at all. Of course in practice this tends to be more approximate - coupons, student discounts, haggling - a seller tries to set the price for each consumer at the maximum s/he'd be willing to pay, but only can get there approximately.

(Mar 08 '13 at 10:51) anthony anthony's gravatar image

I'm not sure what the quantity theory of money has to do with what we were discussing.

"I don't quite follow what an 'opposite subset' is, unless it is simply the entire population other than the targeted subset."

Correct. Charging non-students more is equivalent to charging students less. Charging rich people more is equivalent to charging poor people less. Etc.

(Mar 10 '13 at 19:57) anthony anthony's gravatar image

"First, higher overall prices generally lead to fewer buyers, since even a cartel can't force buyers to buy the product, and the buyers may not be able to afford the product at the higher price even if they want more of it."

The goal in price discrimination is to charge those buyers willing to pay more, more, and those buyers who will only buy for less, less. It's generally not something that can be done perfectly, so yes, higher average prices generally leads to fewer buyers, but my response was to your comment that there will always be some reduction in buyers...generally, but not always.

(Mar 10 '13 at 20:05) anthony anthony's gravatar image

"If the two subsets are consistently identifiable, then raising prices for one will result in fewer buyers from that subset, and lowering prices for the other subset will be likely to result in more buyers from the other subset."

Depends how well you can divide the subsets. If prices are $10, and subset 1 is "people willing to pay $15", then raising prices to $15 for them does not result in fewer buyers from that subset, nor fewer buyers overall.

Sellers usually can't get things that perfect, though negotiated prices often can achieve very good results.

(Mar 10 '13 at 20:10) anthony anthony's gravatar image

Just today I charged $X for something which I would have charged less than half for if they had complained about price. I thus raised my average price without losing a single sale. One-on-one negotiations can be particularly good at capturing extra profits like this, but even more automated means can be useful.

(Mar 10 '13 at 20:12) anthony anthony's gravatar image

"If the prevailing price level is high enough to increase profitability, it will simultaneously create a financial incentive for new competitors to come into the market and compete for a share of the profits."

To repeat my objections to this: Under perfect competition, where there are no barriers to entry nor costs of switching, and where there is perfect information, etc., sure. But that's a fantasy world. In reality, there is not perfect information - most people won't even know they can get a better price. There are barriers to entry the potential profits would have to exceed.

(Mar 10 '13 at 20:19) anthony anthony's gravatar image

And there are costs to switching. If my customer wants to switch from me to one of my competitors, it will cost either them or my competitor quite a bit to switch (on top of the advertising costs to get past that lack of perfect information).

And perfect competition assumes identical products/services. My competitors don't have identical products/services to me. In the vast majority of cases, mine are better, especially for the price. And what about all the start up costs and barriers to entry?

(Mar 10 '13 at 20:24) anthony anthony's gravatar image

"A cartel can't prevent that in a free market."

And, to repeat my objection to this - yes they can - using intellectual property laws. You aren't allowed to sell iPhones.

"Bear in mind, also, that the product offered by a competitor doesn't necessarily have to be identical to the product offered by the cartel."

In fact, it necessarily can't be identical.

Sure, if Apple sold the iPhone for $1,000,000 each, they'd get eaten up by the competition. But that doesn't mean they can't increase profitability by charging $600 instead of $400.

(Mar 10 '13 at 20:26) anthony anthony's gravatar image

"Capitalism upholds property rights, as I pointed out before, and that is not what is normally meant by 'collusion.'"

What do you think is normally meant by collusion?

And what do you think I mean by it?

I defined it above, in one particular context, as "entering into agreements with other firms to set prices at mutually beneficial levels". While upholding property rights isn't the definition of collusion, upholding collusion does involve upholding property rights. The right to property includes the right to enter into agreements with others to set the price of that property.

(Mar 10 '13 at 20:37) anthony anthony's gravatar image

More generally I guess collusion would be "an agreement between two or more people/entities to limit competition between each other". This is generally done for the mutual benefit of parties to the agreement.

Do you know what collusion in poker is?

(Mar 10 '13 at 20:41) anthony anthony's gravatar image
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Asked: Feb 14 '13 at 11:46

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Last updated: Mar 10 '13 at 20:46