The Fearsome Four: The Leading Governors Seeking 2016 GOP Nomination Are All Dismal Right-Wingers

Consolidating and expanding the domination of economic elites, while systematically weakening the voice of the majority in their states, has been the hallmark of the four leading Republican governors seeking the presidency: Florida’s Jeb Bush, Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, Ohio’s John Kasich and New Jersey’s Chris Christie.

The four have worked from nearly identical playbooks in pursuing a similar extremist agenda, unashamedly serving the top 1 percent and other so-called job creators, while grinding down the rights, wages and living conditions facing poor and working families. Their record provides a clear flash-forward into the future of America, should any of them be elected president in 2016.

This shared agenda of the Fearsome Foursome has common roots in the model legislation and strategies launched by the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council, which has been propelled to national importance with funding from the multi-billionaire Koch brothers. Once Kasich and Walker were elected in 2010’s Tea Party wave (Christie became governor that year in a special election after a Democratic scandal), they imitated the extreme right-wing policies of the supposedly moderate Bush, who ruled Florida 1999 to 2007, but then went even further.

The four governors have cultivated different leadership styles and personas, but the key elements of their governance are nearly identical. We should not be surprised to see nuanced differences in tone, such as when Kasich floated the idea of a higher minimum wage and spouted empty compassionate-conservative platitudes at the first GOP debate, saying, “We need to give everybody a chance and treat them with respect.”

This depiction is directly contradicted by Kasich’s years as governor in treating workers and the poor, but won predictable praise from easily swayed observers like New York Times columnist Frank Bruni and others, who failed to measure Kasich’s words against his actions. In contrast to Kasich’s pseudo-compassionate style, Christie continues to project a tough-guy style that echoes Tony Soprano, the TV mob capo from New Jersey, by insulting audience members who ask challenging questions, and pushing hard-line policies like installing FedEx-style tracking devices on all 11 million undocumented workers and their family members in the U.S.

Other stylistic differences are apparent. Walker, a preacher’s son and former Eagle Scout, is perpetually congenial to even his most critical political opponents and journalists (including this writer), but lies to the public on a regular basis. A master at deception and surprise attacks, he has been rightly labeled as more “Nixonian than Nixon” and relentlessly seeks to gain his rightist political objectives at all costs.

One significant policy appears to divide the governors. Christie and Kasich accepted full federal Medicaid funding through the Affordable Care Act, while Walker continues to loudly boast that he has completely rejected the funds, thereby showing his implacable opposition to “Obamacare.” Walker has actually been the only governor to expand access to insurance under the ACA while spurning the federal dollars available to pay for it. But the result has been Wisconsin’s Medicaid program has expelled nearly 58,000 people just above the poverty line by redirecting funds to the very poorest. The possibility of extending aid to the tens of thousands cut from Medicaid under Walker was foreclosed when he turned down $550 million in federal funding.

These relatively subtle shades in style and policy should not blind us to the four governors’ overall unity on the national direction they seek. Their overarching goal has been the same: to cultivate CEOs, hedge-fund operators, and other members of the Republican donor class with economic policies expanding their wealth and power. Meanwhile, they seek an electoral majority by striking blows against cultural threats to the Republican base on social issues like abortion, gay rights, and immigration. As for the 90% of Americans shut out of the current economic recovery, particularly those trapped at the bottom, their message is: you are on your own, and any government assistance will be accompanied by humiliating requirements and testing. Meanwhile, to further consolidate political power, these Republicans and their legislative allies have adopted partisan gerrymandering, new voter suppression laws, and increasingly relied on big money donors in their political campaigns.

In short, it is the Southern model of elite domination and widespread poverty that they all seek to impose on the nation. Here are the five key elements of their strategy.

1. Crushing labor rights.

The war against labor waged by the four governors has been the centerpiece of their larger strategy. Weakening labor means less worker bargaining power and facilitates the upward flow of income. A less politically powerful labor movement means that there is one less effective counterweight to mobilize against the corporate agenda. Fewer members translate into less political activism and lower voter turnout among middle- and lower-income people and diminished ability to combat voter-suppression laws across the nation.

Wisconsin’s Scott Walker has taken the crusade against worker rights the furthest of any governor despite strong public opposition to many of his measures. According to polls by Public Policy Polling and the Times, some 60 percent of both Wisconsinites and Americans generally opposed his 2011 Act 10, which deprived almost all public employees of virtually all rights to union representation. Resistance to Walker’s effort to "divide and conquer" the electorate failed to trigger the resentment against public employees he sought, and crowds of up to 150,000 gathered peacefully at the state capitol in Madison, capturing sustained national and international news coverage. The legality of Act 10 was settled only when four conservative Supreme Court judges—elected with an estimated $8 million in corporate donations—voted to approve it. But the debate over Act 10 featured a male ally of Walker on the court literally choking a female high court justice opposing Act 10, reflecting the stunning new coarsening of Wisconsin politics under Walker.

Walker followed up Act 10 in 2015 by signing a Southern-style “right-to-work” bill with a history deeply rooted in white supremacy, despite repeated assurances to the public that he would not entertain such a bill. The right-to-work bill prohibits unions from charging fees for services that it must legally provide even to non-members, discourages union membership, and drives down wages. This was rapidly succeeded by extraordinary new laws wiping out eight decades or more of worker protections, such as eliminating “prevailing wages” for state construction projects, weakening safeguards for the five-day workweek and virtually eliminating the job security provided by the tenure system for university professors.

In Ohio, John Kasich tried to top Walker’s Act 10 with an anti-public union measure that covered police officers and firefighters who had been exempted by Walker’s bill—in Wisconsin, these unions supported Walker. Kasich, like Walker, tried to argue that the solution for workers’ generally deteriorating standards of living was to drive down public employees’ wages and benefits rather than lifting up standards for the entire working class. Kasich argued, “We’re asking public workers to do a little bit more, people who have guaranteed benefits and people who are not paying very much for their healthcare, and to ask them to do a little bit more in the name of providing balance to that mom who is trying to educate her kids, it’s fairness.” The notion of creating a different form of fairness by establishing decent standards for all obviously remains an alien concept for Kasich.

Kasich’s anti-labor law, Act 5, passed the Ohio Legislature, but was overturned by a massive 61 percent to 39 percent margin in a 2011 referendum. His ongoing hostility toward labor was revealed in a recent New Hampshire speech to a group promoting the privatization of education: “If I were not president, but if I were king of America, I would abolish all teacher’s lounges, where they sit together and worry about ‘woe is us,’” Kasich said at an education conference. Kasich has been an avid advocate of privatized charter schools despite Ohio’s contingent being labeled a “national joke.” Meanwhile, public schools have lost 29,000 employees due to Kasich’s budget cuts.

Christie, too, has savaged labor, revealing his worldview at a town meeting when he declared: “Unions are the problem.” Teachers have been the subject of incessant rhetorical bombardment, and targeted for humiliating personal attacks at public meetings seemingly aimed at diverting blame for New Jersey’s economic problems to public workers. This comes despite Christie’s big role in bringing private charter schools to Newark, where they failed to deliver on the pledge to end poverty and transform education.

Christie also has been unwilling to fund public workers’ pension fund adequately, and to the extent payments into the fund have been made, they have been steered—in deals likely to be illegal—to Wall Street firms that have been big donors to his electoral campaigns. Christie, after dealing crippling blows to his own state’s retirement fund, has proposed major Social Security cuts including raising the retirement age for Social Security and Medicare, making seniors pay more for their Medicare, and reducing the annual cost of living adjustment. These “reforms” would strike especially hard at workers whose bodies have been battered by decades of hard physical work and for low-wage workers with little savings, as well as surviving spouses.

Then there is Florida’s ex-governor Bush. His ultra-privileged life includes a wealthy upbringing, and a father and brother who occupied the White House. He is hardly acquainted with the reality of workers' lives or the need for unions to represent them. Thus, he recently said that strong economic growth and broadly shared prosperity would require ordinary Americans to work longer and harder: “It means that people need to work longer hours and through their productivity gain more income for their families. That's the only way we are going to get out of this rut that we’re in.” 

In reality, American workers are already toiling far longer hours relative to other advanced nations, working 234 more hours (nearly six weeks per year) on average than workers in the other top 10 economies. U.S. workers’ productivity has soared over the last four decades but workers have received a scant share of the increased wealth. “From 1980 to 2011, worker productivity rose 80%” while inflation-adjusted income for workers climbed just one-eighth that amount. Recent trends—with highly profitable firms such as General Electric, Boeing, and Caterpillar demanding wage and benefit cuts—suggest the gap between rising productivity and earnings is only growing.

Bush also backs a plan to radically cut the size of the federal workforce, reduce the pay of federal workers, and set workers in competition against each other. As labor reporter Matt Murray noted, “Jeb argues that federal workers are overpaid and that the government rewards ‘longevity instead of performance.’” Further, Bush “wants to eliminate annual increases and only give increases ‘based on performance.’ This is another classic union-busting tactic: pitting workers against each other for pay increases and rewarding those who oppose the union or suck up to their managers.”

Bush’s vision is consistent with his maneuvers as governor of Florida, where he reduced and re-shaped the state workforce and championed privatized charter and voucher schools that undermine both educational quality and teacher unions. Bush “trimmed the state’s payroll, stripped job protection from thousands of mid-level civil servants… and launched the nation’s first statewide private-school voucher program,” wrote the Washington Post’s Linda Kleindienst in 2007 as he was leaving office. More recent investigative reports on Bush’s charter school record show that program enriched his associates and failed many poor communities.

2. Corporate welfare boosters.

Contrary to the rhetoric of free markets, unhampered and unaided by government action, favored by the four GOP governors, these presidential candidates have all been avid practitioners of crony capitalism. Major highly profitable corporations perfectly capable of financing their own factories, stores, or offices have been showered with a variety of government subsidies, tax breaks, state contracts, and regulatory exemptions –especially if they are donors to the governor of these states.

Each has made tax breaks for the top 1 percent and other “job creators” the driver of their economic strategies. In each case with the current sitting governors as well as ex-Gov. Bush, the subsidy strategy has been a spectacular failure, with the four states’ economies operating at a level substantially below the national level. Consider their bleak records despite the promised prosperity that was supposed to flow from subsidies to those at the top.

Florida: While Bush has been out of office for eight years, his combination of tax breaks for the super-wealthy and dependence on the housing bubble for revenues has created a hole from which Florida has not fully emerged. The tax-subsidy game has proven to be both expensive and efficient, as NY Times columnist Gail Collins noted: “When Jeb Bush was governor, he came up with a plan for biotech corridors that would spawn tens of thousands of jobs, transforming the state just the way Disney World did in the 1970s, except possibly without any pirates. Reuters studied the results and estimated that Florida state and local governments had anted up $1.32 billion and generated 1,365 jobs, or $1 million per new employee.”

Ohio: Ohio’s economy, too, has fared poorly in terms of outcomes for working people. As Columbus investigative reporter Robert Fitrakis outlined, “Under Kasich, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, Ohio stood as one of the two worst economies in the nation at the end of 2013. When he took office in January 2011, Ohio ranked 26th in private sector job growth.” Nonetheless, Kasich depicted himself as fighting successfully for economic growth that would benefit the entire state.

“While Kasich ran hard last year as a “job creator,” the U.S. Department of Labor notes that the state was 46th nationally,” noted Fitrakis. “From January-August 2014, the Buckeye state gained a mere 5,289 jobs.” Further, “while the rest of the nation has regained all of the jobs lost during the 2008 economic meltdown, Kasich still needs to create 213,000 new jobs just to return to pre-recession numbers in Ohio."

New Jersey: Corporations have received particularly lavish subsidies in the name of spurring job development but continues to maintain an unemployment rate higher than the national average. “The unprecedented growth in subsidies [from $1.2 billion to $5.4 billion over the last decade] however, has so far done little to significantly improve the state’s economy,” wrote Jon Whiten in a detailed study for the New Jersey Policy Perspective.

The ever-growing flood of subsidies has utterly failed to reignite the New Jersey economy, leaving the state behind as other states recover more successfully from the Great Recession.

“Four and a half years into the surge, New Jersey’s economic recovery remains far behind that of its neighboring states and the nation,” Whiten said. “Just 40 percent of the jobs New Jersey lost in the recession have been recovered (including only 48 percent of private-sector jobs); the state has the highest share of workers who have been unemployed for more than six months; and New Jersey continues to lead the nation in the percentage of homeowners (one in twelve) who are in foreclosure.”

Significantly, as the Associated Press reported, the subsidy program has been closely intertwined with Christie’s campaign fund-raising operation. “Nearly all the recipients [of subsidies] boast notable political connections.” As the subsidies flowed, New Jersey’s middle class suffered, the Star-Ledger reported. It fell “nearly 3 percent since 2008, while the percentage of those richer and poorer has increased. That accounts for about 79,000 people in the state leaving the middle class.”

Wisconsin: The largely privatized Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, set up and chaired by Walker until recently, has been repeatedly implicated in two state audits and several independent reports for dubious practices that have failed to generate family-sustaining jobs.  The agency has been blasted for failing to keep track of its corporate subsidies and their outcomes, doling out state taxpayer funds to firms which are Walker donors, companies with little evidence of financial viability, providing aid to corporations already having massive resources of their own, and effectively rewarding companies intent on moving jobs overseas. The latest controversy involves the giant Eaton Corporation benefitting from $370,000 in state tax credits and then moving nearly 100 jobs to Mexico.

Walker’s 2010 gubernatorial campaign was built around his pledge that his “Open for Business” policies of low corporate taxes, lavish subsidies, and lax environmental regulation would help to produce 250,000 jobs. Walker quickly laid out $1.6 billion in new corporate tax breaks over the next decade, and the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation was extraordinarily generous in doling out subsidies, loans, loan guarantees, and other forms of financial aid without proper oversight.

Nonetheless, Walker’s resulting economic record has been dismal. Only about 129,000 jobs actually materialized during Walker’s first term, which ranked a woeful 35th in the nation. Worse, the period was marked by plummeting middle-income jobs in the state, and their replacement almost exclusively by low-wage jobs. Wisconsin’s middle class has shrunken by 14.7 percent since 2000, worst in the nation. This drop was twice the national average of 7.2 percenr (see here and here), as measured by the sharp drop in household income. Contrary to some media defense of Walker, this shrinkage has actually accelerated under Walker, as the University of Wisconsin’s Marc Levine has repeatedly documented.

Ironically, all four of these governors cite their states’ economies as models for the nation, although the residents of each state—Florida, New Jersey, Ohio, and Wisconsin—have suffered through economic conditions far below the national average on key variables affecting working and poor families with special harshness. Residents in their states know the difference between their rhetoric and their record. In New Jersey, Christie’s approval rating has fallen to 30 percent and an overwhelming majority opposes his run for the presidency. Similarly, Wisconsin’s Walker—who incessantly touts his three electoral victories in a state which consistently back Democratic presidential candidates—has seen his approval rating sink to 39 percent, with notable drops among centrists and in rural and suburban areas which had previously backed him. Fully 63 percent of Wisconsin residents reject his presidential ambitions.

3. Bottom 90 percent: You’re on your own.

The governors’ approach to unmet social needs radically differs from most past Republican leaders who recognized the need for at least some modest safety net in their states. The four reject New Deal-style active responsibility of the federal government to stem acute suffering, create jobs, lift wages, and establish life-long economic security. Instead, they are projecting a message of “you’re on your own” to the bottom 90 percent when they encounter unemployment, low-wage under-employment, the prospect of a home foreclosure, or other disasters for workers and the poor and their families.

Programs like unemployment insurance and food stamps, long supported by a bipartisan consensus, are now under attack from the governors and their political allies. Republicans like the Frightening Foursome are largely guided by a “fewer benefits, more jobs” mentality that ignores workers’ need for assistance until their situation improves.

In Wisconsin, Walker has signed a law of near-certain illegality instituting drug testing for all recipients of public assistance, including those getting unemployment and food stamps. Walker and other governors have implemented additional restrictions to unemployment benefits designed to force jobless workers to take jobs at any wage, even if far less than what their families need to survive or the modest levels of their benefits.

The new limits are justified by “blame the victim” narratives, much as welfare recipients were vilified as lazy and hopelessly dependent in the 1980’s and 1990’s by both Republicans and Democrats. These narratives are repeated endlessly on Fox News, by right-wing talk radio hosts, and in comments by the governors. Walker, for example, declared that the lack of initiative by the jobless—not the shortage of good jobs—was responsible for the large number of jobless receiving benefits. “We shouldn’t be paying for them to sit on the couch, watching TV or playing Xbox,” Walker recently stated. “We need to get them the skills to get back in the game and get back to work.”

Walker expressed this even more bluntly in a 2014 re-election debate, arguing that his state’s top economic problem was not a lack of good jobs: “We don’t have a jobs problem in this state,” he said. “We have a work problem.”

But the most vicious attacks are directed against the 11 million undocumented migrants residing in the U.S., which has escalated with Donald Trump’s call for an end to “birthright citizenship.” Trump’s proposal would require the overturning of the 14th Amendment. Trump was soon echoed by Walker, and Bush—who has a Mexican-born wife—began decrying the alleged use of “anchor babies” (children born on U.S. soil) to win eventual naturalization or citizenship for their parents. 

Trying to trump Trump’s call for a supposedly impenetrable barrier to Mexico, Walker called for a similar wall on the northern border to prevent “terrorists” from slipping into the US from Canada, stirring up a contemptuous response on both sides of the border. Christie has proposed Fed-Ex level electronic monitoring of every movement of the millions of undocumented people in the country. Immigrant workers and their “anchor babies” have been blamed for sagging wages and lost jobs faced by working families, ignoring the reality that low-status immigrants are stuck in jobs most Americans refuse.

The contrast between slavish service to the well-connected and neglect of the needy was demonstrated by Christie in the aftermath of 2012’s Hurricane Sandy. Christie turned hurricane relief into a program for rewarding campaign contributors while providing aid at a snail’s pace to families still coping with destroyed or badly damaged homes. Only about 25 percent—about $1.3 billion—of the $4.2 billion in available funds have actually been disbursed by Christie nearly three years after the disaster, reported New Jersey Public Radio’s Matt Katz. Thus, we see again the pattern of the four governors rewarding campaign donors and other powerful interests with taxpayer dollars while withholding government help to those in need, often hypocritically justified as preventing “dependence” on public aid.

4. Reviving right-wing culture wars.

In What’s the Matter with Kansas? author Thomas Frank outlined the cynical strategy of pro-corporate politicians that intentionally provoked voters with hot-button social issues like abortion, same-sex marriage and gun rights while avoiding economic inequality. Voters in some of the poorest counties voted overwhelmingly for Republicans who subsequently stood against their economic interests. But in the decade since the publication of Frank’s insightful book, social conservatives have become much more aggressive in pushing their agenda and insisting that it be taken seriously. Thus, the four governors are staunchly anti-abortion.

Walker’s position is arguably the most extreme. He signed a law defining human life beginning at conception, banning abortions after 20 weeks, and eliminating the usual rape, incest, and mother’s health exemptions that allow for an abortion. The new law, being contested in the courts, “requires the physician to terminate the pregnancy in the manner that, in reasonable medical judgment, provides the best opportunity for the unborn child to survive.” This places the woman’s survival second.

As for victims of rape who don’t wish to bear their rapist's child, Walker casually assured the public that this concern would disappear as the pregnancy proceeded. “I mean, I think for most people who are concerned about that, it’s in the initial months where they’re most concerned about it,” Walker said of pregnancies caused by rape and incest. “In this case, again, it’s an unborn life, it’s an unborn child and that’s why we feel strongly about it. I’m prepared to sign it either way that they send it to us.”

Marriage equality for gays and lesbians is hardly greeted with enthusiasm by the four, although most have given up their opposition after the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling. Bush once asked in a 1994 commentary, “[Should] sodomy be elevated to the same constitutional status as race and religion? My answer is no,” reported Buzzfeed. But recently, he refers to gay marriage fostering “life-long commitments.”

Christie vetoed a gay marriage bill in 2012, but says he’s accepted the Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality. Kasich told of attending a gay wedding during the Republicans’ first debate, taking a distinctly more sympathetic position that set him apart from the other candidates. Previously he supported challenging “an upcoming ruling by a federal judge that will require Ohio to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states where it is legal,” Time magazine reported.

They also share many views on firearms. Three of the four Republican governors are highly supportive of ALEC-backed measures like concealed carry, which permits almost anyone to obtain and carry a hidden handgun and the “stand your ground” doctrine. Both Walker and Bush have earned A+ grades from the National Rifle Association. “In 2005, Bush, appeasing conservative Second Amendment activists, signed the Stand Your Ground law into law. Walker, too, has been particularly vocal in boasting about his support for “gun rights.” One week after a white supremacist murdered nine black people in Charleston, South Carolina, Walker further expanded gun rights by signing bills to eliminate the 48-hour waiting period for obtaining a gun and for permitting ex-law enforcement officials to bring guns into public schools.

Ohio’s Kasich was sharply criticized for his position on guns, with a Cleveland Plain Dealer editorial calling his stance “nauseating” in the context of frequent mass murders in the U.S. Kasich had responded to a spate of gun-related killings by stating, “As we move forward, whatever we do, we don’t want to erode the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens.”

Christie, operating in a state far more liberal than the other three, has occasionally backed gun control measures.

5. Silencing of the lambs.

The loss of workplace rights, growing economic insecurity and attacks on reproductive rights are widespread, and likely to ignite voter anger, so GOP legislation to deprive working people of the vote logically follows.

Noted activist and academic Frances Fox Piven pointed to Wisconsin’s 2011 voter-suppression law as a predictable response to workers’ loss of rights and income thanks to Scot Walker’s Act 10. “We saw labor protests of unprecedented size and intensity over limiting their voice as workers,” Piven said. “And then [protesters] were greeted with a law to limit their power electorally, too.”

The Wisconsin law, which requires state-issued voter IDs, voter signatures, longer residency requirements and other procedural barriers to voting, was described by Common Cause state director Jay Heck as “the most restrictive, blatantly partisan and ill-conceived voter identification legislation in the nation.” It will make it much harder for those who lack driver’s licenses, which includes 23 percent of elderly Wisconsinites, 59 percent of Latina women and 78 percent of African-American men ages 18 to 24. These people will need to acquire state-issued photo identification to vote. Existing photo IDs for students fail to meet the new standard.

Ohio’s Kasich also signed a set of voter-suppression measures into law. Moreover, he was involved in Ohio’s effort—part of a $30 million national Republic Governors Association campaign called REDLINE—to gerrymander the state’s voting districts to produce a disproportionate number of seats for Republicans that far exceeded their share of actual votes case. As Columbus muckraker Fitrakis reported, “In a state where the Democrats, Republicans and Independents are fairly evenly divided, Kasich and his GOP cohorts have gerrymandered the Congressional districts to give 12 out of the 16 congressional seats to Republicans and make sure that the seats are non-competitive.”

With Republicans controlling 31 state legislatures, the possibility of more states passing restrictive legislation, with voter ID laws calling for identification in forms the poor and minorities are likely to lack, shorter voting periods and more limited hours, is a real danger. Further, the effects of gerrymandering will be felt for years to come in the form of diluting the voice of Democratic voters. Massive as these efforts are, perhaps nothing can top Jeb Bush’s part in disenfranchising thousands of black voters in the 2000 presidential election and swaying the election to his brother George W., as journalist Greg Palast detailed in news stories written in late 2000 during the Florida vote count and later published in a book. 

Trump May Be Grabbing Headlines, But These Four Are Bad News

The four leading Republican governors contending for the presidency—Bush, Kasich, Walker and Christie—have differences in style, temperament and a few policy issues. But their vision for America—as visible from the way that they have governed—makes clear that they are set on new order where elite “job creators” are enthroned regardless of how few family-sustaining jobs they create. Those in power at major corporations and as investors—who overwhelmingly make up the donor class—will receive unbounded government support in a system that defines crony capitalism.

In their view, government support is too precious to be extended to those in real need, and worse, recipients would become lazy and dependent—unlike the corporations who count on huge amounts of government aid.

When signs of resistance emerge from those victimized by their policies tilted to economic elites, these governors have been willing to block electoral consequences by unashamedly trampling on democratic rights through voter-suppression laws, gerrymandering and other tactics.

In the America of the Fearsome Foursome, democracy has been hollowed out and workers stripped of their rights with shrinking expectations for economic security and individual dignity. Seen from their states, the four governors have in varying measures resurrected the economic and political model of the 1930s South. Today, they are all seeking the presidency, arguing that very legacy is what America needs as it faces the future.

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