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Archive for January 27th, 2013

GOP changes words, not actions; modifies rhetoric, not policy

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Paul Krugman in the NY Times:

Republicans have a problem. For years they could shout down any attempt to point out the extent to which their policies favored the elite over the poor and the middle class; all they had to do was yell “Class warfare!” and Democrats scurried away. In the 2012 election, however, that didn’t work: the picture of the G.O.P. as the party of sneering plutocrats stuck, even as Democrats became more openly populist than they have been in decades.

As a result, prominent Republicans have begun acknowledging that their party needs to improve its image. But here’s the thing: Their proposals for a makeover all involve changing the sales pitch rather than the product. When it comes to substance, the G.O.P. is more committed than ever to policies that take from most Americans and give to a wealthy handful.

Consider, as a case in point, how a widely reported recent speech by Bobby Jindal the governor of Louisiana, compares with his actual policies.

Mr. Jindal posed the problem in a way that would, I believe, have been unthinkable for a leading Republican even a year ago. “We must not,” he declared, “be the party that simply protects the well off so they can keep their toys. We have to be the party that shows all Americans how they can thrive.” After a campaign in which Mitt Romney denounced any attempt to talk about class divisions as an “attack on success,” this represents a major rhetorical shift.

But Mr. Jindal didn’t offer any suggestions about how Republicans might demonstrate that they aren’t just about letting the rich keep their toys, other than claiming even more loudly that their policies are good for everyone.

Meanwhile, back in Louisiana Mr. Jindal is pushing a plan to eliminate the state’s income tax, which falls most heavily on the affluent, and make up for the lost revenue by raising sales taxes, which fall much more heavily on the poor and the middle class. The result would be big gains for the top 1 percent, substantial losses for the bottom 60 percent. Similar plans are being pushed by a number of other Republican governors as well.

Like the new acknowledgment that the perception of being the party of the rich is a problem, this represents a departure for the G.O.P. — but in the opposite direction. In the past, Republicans would justify tax cuts for the rich either by claiming that they would pay for themselves or by claiming that they could make up for lost revenue by cutting wasteful spending. But what we’re seeing now is open, explicit reverse Robin Hoodism: taking from ordinary families and giving to the rich. That is, even as Republicans look for a way to sound more sympathetic and less extreme, their actual policies are taking another sharp right turn.

Why is this happening? In particular, why is it happening now, just after an election in which the G.O.P. paid a price for its anti-populist stand? . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

27 January 2013 at 9:34 pm

Posted in GOP, Government

Arming the children

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Just like cigarette companies, gun manufacturers are targeting the young. Mike McIntire reports in the NY Times:

Threatened by long-term declining participation in shooting sports, the firearms industry has poured millions of dollars into a broad campaign to ensure its future by getting guns into the hands of more, and younger, children.

The industry’s strategies include giving firearms, ammunition and cash to youth groups; weakening state restrictions on hunting by young children; marketing an affordable military-style rifle for “junior shooters” and sponsoring semiautomatic-handgun competitions for youths; and developing a target-shooting video game that promotes brand-name weapons, with links to the Web sites of their makers.

The pages of Junior Shooters, an industry-supported magazine that seeks to get children involved in the recreational use of firearms, once featured a smiling 15-year-old girl clutching a semiautomatic rifle. At the end of an accompanying article that extolled target shooting with a Bushmaster AR-15 — an advertisement elsewhere in the magazine directed readers to a coupon for buying one — the author encouraged youngsters to share the article with a parent.

“Who knows?” it said. “Maybe you’ll find a Bushmaster AR-15 under your tree some frosty Christmas morning!”

The industry’s youth-marketing effort is backed by extensive social research and is carried out by an array of nonprofit groups financed by the gun industry, an examination by The New York Times found. The campaign picked up steam about five years ago with the completion of a major study that urged a stronger emphasis on the “recruitment and retention” of new hunters and target shooters.

The overall objective was summed up in another study, commissioned last year by the shooting sports industry, that suggested encouraging children experienced in firearms to recruit other young people. The report, which focused on children ages 8 to 17, said these “peer ambassadors” should help introduce wary youngsters to guns slowly, perhaps through paintball, archery or some other less intimidating activity.

“The point should be to get newcomers started shooting something, with the natural next step being a move toward actual firearms,” said the report, which was prepared for the National Shooting Sports Foundation and the Hunting Heritage Trust.

Firearms manufacturers and their two primary surrogates, the National Rifle Association of America and the National Shooting Sports Foundation, have long been associated with high-profile battles to fend off efforts at gun control and to widen access to firearms. The public debate over the mass shootings in Newtown, Conn., and elsewhere has focused largely on the availability of guns, along with mental illness and the influence of violent video games.

Little attention has been paid, though, to the industry’s youth-marketing initiatives. They stir passionate views, with proponents arguing that introducing children to guns can provide a safe and healthy pastime, and critics countering that it fosters a corrosive gun culture and is potentially dangerous.

The N.R.A. has for decades given grants for youth shooting programs, mostly to Boy Scout councils and 4-H groups, which traditionally involved single-shot rimfire rifles, BB guns and archery. Its $21 million in total grants in 2010 was nearly double what it gave out five years earlier.

Newer initiatives by other organizations go further, seeking to introduce children to high-powered rifles and handguns while invoking the same rationale of those older, more traditional programs: that firearms can teach “life skills” like responsibility, ethics and citizenship. And the gun industry points to injury statistics that it says show a greater likelihood of getting hurt cheerleading or playing softball than using firearms for fun and sport.

Still, some experts in child psychiatry say that encouraging youthful exposure to guns, even in a structured setting with an emphasis on safety, is asking for trouble. Dr. Jess P. Shatkin, the director of undergraduate studies in child and adolescent mental health at New York University, said that young people are naturally impulsive and that their brains “are engineered to take risks,” making them ill suited for handling guns.

“There are lots of ways to teach responsibility to a kid,” Dr. Shatkin said. “You don’t need a gun to do it.” . . .

Continue reading. This seems like a very bad idea to me.

Written by LeisureGuy

27 January 2013 at 11:30 am

Posted in Business, Guns

Return of ‘Three-Fifths’ of a Person

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Robert Parry points out the direction the GOP has taken:

Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Old Confederacy, is a fitting place for the neo-Confederates who now control the Republican Party to reinstate a version of the slave-era provision counting African-Americans as “Three-Fifths” of a person for the purpose of representation.

This revival of the infamous “Three-Fifths” clause of the U.S. Constitution is part of a Republican scheme to give lesser value to the votes of African-Americans and other minorities who tend to cluster in cities than to the votes of whites in rural, more GOP-friendly areas. The goal is to give future Republican presidential candidates a thumb-on-the-scale advantage in seeking the White House, as well as to assure continued Republican control of the House of Representatives.

The scheme is a direct Republican response to the emergence of Barack Obama’s coalition, which pulled together the votes of African-Americans, Hispanics, Asian-Americans and young urban whites (who are more comfortable with a multi-cultural future for the United States).

The racist and right-wing white males, who now dominate the Republican Party, have seemingly concluded that they can only continue to dominate American politics if they can devalue the votes of Americans who are inside this Obama coalition. If the Republican schemes prevail, those votes may well be worth even less than three-fifths of the vote of a rural white.

The initial phase of this Republican plan was to aggressively gerrymander congressional districts in states under GOP control to concentrate minority voters in a few districts while creating safe GOP majorities in most of the remaining districts. That strategy allowed Republicans to retain control of the U.S. House of Representatives in 2012 despite losing the nationwide popular vote by more than one million ballots.

Now, in several states that voted for President Obama, Republican-controlled state legislatures are changing how electoral votes for President will be allocated in the future, by basing them on who wins the gerrymandered congressional districts rather than the current system of giving all the electors to the statewide winner.

That way, even if a GOP presidential candidate loses a state decisively, he might still snake away with the majority of electors by carrying most of the Republican-tilted congressional districts. However, in other Republican-controlled states that voted for Mitt Romney, the GOP is leaving the old winner-take-all system in place.

Thus, the effect of this electoral chicanery is to systematically reduce the value of votes cast by African-Americans and other minorities (as well as urban white youth). In many cases, the value of their effective representation would be reduced to the three-fifths level or even less. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

27 January 2013 at 10:54 am

Posted in Election, GOP, Government

Capital Insiders Help Amgen

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Bill Moyes and Michael Winship report at Consortiumnews.com:

The inauguration of a president is one of those spectacles of democracy that can make us remember we’re part of something big and enduring. So for a few hours this past Monday the pomp and circumstance inspired us to think that government of, by, and for the people really is just that, despite the predatory threats that stalk it.

But the mood didn’t last. Every now and then, as the cameras panned upward, the Capitol dome towering over the ceremony was a reminder of something the good feeling of the moment couldn’t erase. It’s the journalist’s curse to have a good time spoiled by the reality beyond the pageantry. Just a couple of days before the inaugural festivities, The New York Times published some superb investigative reporting by the team of Eric Lipton and Kevin Sack, and their revelations were hard to forget, even at a time of celebration.

The story told us of a pharmaceutical giant called Amgen and three senators so close to it they might be entries on its balance sheet: Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Democratic Senator Max Baucus, chair of the Senate Finance Committee, and that powerful committee’s ranking Republican, Orrin Hatch. A trio of perpetrators who treat the United States Treasury as if it were a cash-and-carry annex of corporate America.The Times story described how Amgen got a huge hidden gift from unnamed members of Congress and their staffers. They slipped an eleventh hour loophole into the New Year’s Eve deal that kept the government from going over the fiscal cliff. When the sun rose in the morning, there it was, a richly embroidered loophole for Amgen that will cost taxpayers a cool half a billion dollars.

Amgen is the world’s largest biotechnology firm, a drug maker that sells a variety of medications. The little clause secretly sneaked into the fiscal cliff bill gives the company two more years of relief from Medicare cost controls for certain drugs used by patients who are on kidney dialysis, including a pill called Sensipar, manufactured by Amgen.

The provision didn’t mention Amgen by name, but according to reporters Lipton and Sack, the news that it had been tucked into the fiscal cliff deal “was so welcome, that the company’s chief executive quickly relayed it to investment analysts.” Tipping them off, it would seem, to a jackpot in the making.

Amgen has 74 lobbyists on its team in Washington and lobbied hard for that loophole, currying favor with friends at the White House and on Capitol Hill. The Times reporters traced its “deep financial and political ties” to Baucus, McConnell and Hatch, “who hold heavy sway over Medicare payment policy.”

All three have received hefty campaign donations from the company whose bottom line mysteriously just got padded at taxpayer expense. Since 2007, Amgen employees and its political action committee have contributed nearly $68,000 to Senator Baucus, $73,000 to Senator McConnell’s campaigns, and $59,000 to Senator Hatch.

And lo and behold, among those 74 Amgen lobbyists are the former chief of staff to Senator Baucus and the former chief of staff to Senator McConnell. You get the picture: Two guys nurtured at public expense, paid as public servants, disappear through the gold-plated revolving door of Congress and presto, return as money changers in the temple of crony capitalism.

Inside to welcome them is a current top aide to Senator . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

27 January 2013 at 10:43 am

Finally, the Republicans Are Afraid

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Robert Parry at Consortiumnews.com writes:

For anyone who has lived through the past several decades of Republican bullying – from Richard Nixon’s anything-goes politics through Karl Rove’s dreams of a “permanent Republican majority” – it had to be startling to hear House Speaker John Boehner complaining that President Barack Obama’s goal was “to annihilate” the GOP.

During a private luncheonof the Republican Ripon Society on Tuesday, Boehner cited Obama’s progressive agenda as outlined in his Second Inaugural Address as representing an existential threat to the GOP.

“It’s pretty clear to me that he knows he can’t do any of that as long as the House is controlled by Republicans,” Boehner said. “So we’re expecting over the next 22 months to be the focus of this administration as they attempt to annihilate the Republican Party.” The Ohio Republican also claimed that it was Obama’s goal “to just shove us into the dustbin of history.”

Of course, Boehner may be wildly exaggerating the Republican plight to shock the party out of its funk, raise more money, and get right-wing activists back to the barricades. Still, his comments marked a remarkable reversal of fortune, like the playground bully getting his nose bloodied and running to the teacher in tears.

Even if hyped from political effect, Boehner’s lament also might force some progressives to rethink their negative views about President Obama. If indeed Obama has gotten the upper hand on America’s swaggering Right, then he might not be the political wimp that many on the Left have pegged him to be.

Without doubt, America’s political landscape has shifted from what it was just eight years ago when President George W. Bush was talking about using his political capital to privatize Social Security and Bush’s political guru, Karl Rove, was contemplating an enduring Republican control of all three branches of the U.S. government.

As part of that Zeitgeist of 2005, as Bush entered his second term, right-wing activist Grover Norquist joked about keeping the Democrats around as neutered farm animals. The president of Americans for Tax Reform – most famous for getting Republicans to pledge never to raise taxes – told the Washington Post that congressional Democrats should grow accustomed to having no power and no reproductive ability.

“Once the minority of House and Senate are comfortable in their minority status, they will have no problem socializing with the Republicans,” Norquist said. “Any farmer will tell you that certain animals run around and are unpleasant. But when they’ve been ‘fixed,’ then they are happy and sedate. They are contented and cheerful.”

How We Got There

That moment of right-wing arrogance represented a culmination of decades of hardball Republican politics, a take-no-prisoners style that usually encountered only the softest of responses from the Democrats and progressives.

Arguably the pattern was set in fall 1968 when . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

27 January 2013 at 10:27 am

Posted in GOP

Under Obama 5 more years of widespread government surveillance of citizens

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Anthony Cuthbertson reports at WhoWhatWhy.com:

While pundits and partisans argue about what President Obama’s second inaugural address bodes for the next four years of political in-fighting, the assault on privacy rights that began under George W. Bush shows no signs of abating under Obama. Just before the New Year, the President signed into law an extension to a warrantless intercept program that infringes on basic legal precepts of privacy and, many argue, directly contradicts the Fourth Amendment.

In all the drama surrounding the “fiscal cliff,” the renewal of the FISA Amendments Act (FAA)—the 2008 legislation that allows for warrantless surveillance of the emails, text messages, and internet searches of US citizens—seems to have slipped under the radar.

Under the renewed law, for the next five years the National Security Agency (NSA) can eavesdrop without a warrant on US citizens who are suspected of engaging in conversations with suspicious non-US-citizens. Conversations have to contain “foreign intelligence information”—but exactly how this broad term is interpreted by the NSA is unclear. What’s more, a FISA order on one specific person can be used against entire groups, potentially meaning blanket surveillance on thousands of Americans at a time.

The 2008 FAA was created in the wake of a journalistic expose revealing how the Bush Administration had circumvented a previous law—the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) of 1978. That earlier FISA had mandated that the NSA obtain a warrant from a special court if it wanted to spy on Americans. When confronted with the Administration’s blatant law breaking, Congress took the route of least resistance, crafting the FAA, which retroactively immunized the culpable parties. It also entrenched the Bush-era blanket surveillance as law.

“Not Reasonably Possible”

Federal courts, routinely deferring to the executive’s assertion of the “state secrets” privilege, have hitherto stiff-armed challenges to FAA.  Indeed, it is so swathed in secrecy that not even those who voted for the invasive program fully understand it. When Senators Ron Wyden [D-OR] and Mark Udall [D-CO] asked last May for a rough estimate of how many Americans have been targeted through the FAA, the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) responded: “I’m sorry. That’s not reasonably possible”.

In response to another letter from Wyden in July, the DNI  conceded that “on at least one occasion the government’s implementation of section 702 of FISA has sometimes circumvented the spirit of the law,” and that it was “unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment.” The Wall Street Journal said that this “represented the first time the government has acknowledged U.S. spy activities violated the Constitution.”

Wyden was joined in opposition to the FAA by Senator Rand Paul [R-KY], who said that reauthorization of FISA would be “unconstitutional.” . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

27 January 2013 at 10:22 am

Global water grab by corporations

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Corporations are simply an extremely unfriendly form of government, driven only by the drive to increase profits. (That’s not a good mandate if you care at all about the common welfare.) Now they are pouncing on a potential source of both profit and power: fresh water supplies. The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy has a cautionary article:

Writing in National Geographic in December 2012 about “small-scale irrigation techniques with simple buckets, affordable pumps, drip lines, and other equipment” that “are enabling farm families to weather dry seasons, raise yields, diversify their crops, and lift themselves out of poverty” water expert Sandra Postel of the Global Water Policy Project cautioned against reckless land and water-related investments in Africa. “[U]nless African governments and foreign interests lend support to these farmer-driven initiatives, rather than undermine them through land and water deals that benefit large-scale, commercial schemes, the best opportunity in decades for societal advancement in the region will be squandered.”

That same month, the online publication Market Oracle reported that “[t]he new ‘water barons’—the Wall Street banks and elitist multibillionaires—are buying up water all over the world at unprecedented pace.” The report reveals two phenomena that have been gathering speed, and that could potentially lead to profit accumulation at the cost of communities and commons —the expansion of market instruments beyond the water supply and sanitation to other areas of water governance, and the increasingly prominent role of financial institutions.

In several instances this has meant that the government itself has set up public corporations that run like a business, contracting out water supply and sanitation operations to those with expertise, or entering into public–private–partnerships, often with water multinationals. This happened recently in Nagpur and New Delhi, India. In most rural areas, ensuring a clean drinking water supply and sanitation continues to be a challenge. For-profit companies such as Sarvajal have begun setting up pre-paid water kiosks (or water ATMs) that would dispense units of water upon the insertion of a pre-paid card. It is no surprise that these are popular among people who otherwise have no access to clean drinking water.

With climate change, however, the water crisis is no longer perceived as confined to developing countries or even primarily a concern related to water supply and sanitation. Fresh water commons are becoming degraded and depleted in both developed and developing countries. In the United States, diversion of water for expanded commodity crop production, biofuels and gas hydro-fracking is compounding the crisis in rural areas. In areas ranging from the Ogallala aquifer to the Great Lakes in North America, water has been referred to as liquid gold. Billionaires such as T. Boone Pickens have been buying up land overlying the Ogallala aquifer, acquiring water rights; companies such as Dow Chemicals, with a long history of water pollution, are investing in the business of water purification, making pollution itself a cash-cow.

But chemical companies are not alone: . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

27 January 2013 at 9:33 am

To what extent can the religious demand that non-believers obey the religion

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This is a genuinely tricky issue because each religion has dictates that are indeed accepted by those who are not adherents of the religion. For example, almost all religions prohibit murder, and nonbelievers generally also reject murder, so there is considerable overlap among the various religions and also the nonreligious for this particular dictate. The same goes for theft and adultery.

But when the religious belief requires, say, eating only a vegetarian diet, do members of the religion have a right to demand that nonmembers discontinue the eating of meat? Or would Jews and Muslims be right in forbidding Christians to eat pork?

I think most would say no. And yet the Catholic church will do anything in its power to prevent non-Catholics from using birth control, up to and including letting HIV continue to spread and kill people (as in the case of Africa, where the Catholic church has fought to prevent the use of condoms). And those whose religious beliefs require them to not use abortion seem determined to force even those who do not share that belief to obey it, despite the legality of abortion in this country—a country in which many believe an abortion is a matter of individual choice.

In the case at hand a number of people are determined, based on their own religious beliefs, to prevent company insurance plans from providing perfectly legal contraception services to those who do not share the religious beliefs. Their beliefs (in their view) are that it is not enough simply for themselves to adhere to their religious dictates, others must obey as well.

The only saving grace is that these same people observe the principle of reciprocity and they themselves adhere to rules imposed by other religions—for example, the people demanding that others not use contraceptives or abortion are willing to eschew meat (and particularly pork), pray 5 times daily in the direction of Mecca, and so on. Since they demand that their religious beliefs be imposed on others, they themselves are willing to accept the imposition of beliefs from religions that they do not hold. Oh, wait…

Written by LeisureGuy

27 January 2013 at 9:03 am

Who decides the laws of war?

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Charlie Savage is among journalists a paragon, and he has an excellent column in today’s NY Times:

UNTIL recently, no uniformed lawyer was viewed by the Obama administration with greater favor than Brig. Gen. Mark S. Martins, the scholarly chief prosecutor of themilitary commissions system who is leading the case against Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and four other Guantánamo Bay detainees accused of aiding the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

A Rhodes Scholar who graduated first in his class at West Point and earned a Harvard law degree alongside a young Barack Obama, General Martins served for five years in Iraq and Afghanistan, helped review detainee policies for President Obama in 2009, and was handpicked to reboot commissions in the hope that his image and conduct would persuade the world to respect the outcome of the Sept. 11 case — prosecutors are seeking death sentences — as legitimate.

But next week, when General Martins returns to public view at a pretrial hearing in the Sept. 11 case, he may appear to have gone rogue. He has engaged in an increasingly public dispute with the administration centered on an uncomfortable question he is refusing to drop: is it valid for the United States to use tribunals to charge idiosyncratic American offenses like “conspiracy,” even though they are not recognized as war crimes under international law?

General Martins’s standoff with the administration is writing a new chapter in a familiar narrative: since the 2001 terrorist attacks, military lawyers in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps have repeatedly clashed with politically appointed lawyers over the laws of war.

During George W. Bush’s administration, uniformed lawyers pushed back against civilian officials over the applicability of the Geneva Conventions in the war on terrorism, torture and protections for defendants in tribunals. Then as now, uniformed lawyers adopted rigid interpretations of the rules of warfare as constraining government policies, while civilian lawyers gravitated toward more flexible (or expedient) understandings.

The current dispute traces back to an appeals court ruling in October that vacated a tribunal’s verdict in 2008 against an Al Qaeda driver because his offense, “material support for terrorism,” was not a recognized international war crime at the time of his actions. The judges rejected the Justice Department’s argument that the charge was nevertheless valid under an American “common law of war” and because Congress had listed the crime as an offense for the tribunals in a 2006 statute.

The ruling raised the question of what to do about other cases with the same defect, including the appeal of a convicted Al Qaeda propagandist whose charges included “conspiracy,” which is also not an international war crime but was sometimes charged by tribunals in American history, including in cases from World War II and the Civil War.

General Martins pushed to abandon the propagandist’s conviction and scale back the charges that are triable in a military commission, contending that pressing forward with failed arguments would delegitimize the system and cast a distracting cloud over the Sept. 11 case. But Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. decided to go forward with defending the propagandist’s conviction and the validity of conspiracy as a tribunal charge, and the schism opened.

General Martins refused to sign the Justice Department brief in the propagandist case and announced he would seek to drop conspiracy from the list of charges in the Sept. 11 case and focus on “legally sustainable” ones, like the classic war crime: attacking civilians. But the Pentagon official who oversees tribunals refused to withdraw the conspiracy charge, citing the Justice Department. General Martins responded that his prosecutors would not argue against a defense motion asking a judge to scuttle it.

“It really is amazing,” said Gary Solis, a retired military judge who teaches wartime law at George Washington and Georgetown Universities. “They brought Martins in to square it away, and everyone on all sides said ‘if anyone can do it, it’s Martins.’ Then when Martins offers his best advice, it’s rejected.”

In certain respects, the current dispute is knottier and more abstract than Bush-era fights over the laws of war. But a common concern connects them: . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

27 January 2013 at 8:21 am

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