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Posts Tagged ‘Crony Capitalism’

I’ve argued that the crowd in Washington profits by plundering America, but that’s just part of the equation.

There are also plenty of big companies that have their snouts in the public trough.

No wonder many people have become disgusted

Writing for the Wall Street Journal, James Freeman points out that a growing number of Americans think the system is rigged against them and he links this disillusionment to an ever-expanding federal government.

According to the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, a full 56% of Americans agree with this statement: “The economic and political systems in the country are stacked against people like me.” This disillusionment index has been rising for more than a decade and coincides with an explosion in the size of the federal government. …The last time Americans had this little faith in the country’s political and economic systems was for a brief period in 1992, in the aftermath of President George H.W. Bush’s breaking of his no-new-taxes pledge in a deal with Congressional Democrats that enabled more spending. …more government enables people to get rich through political favoritism. In the era of the Beltway boom, no wonder so many people feel the deck is stacked against them.

So is this just empty anti-government rhetoric?

I don’t think so.

Consider the way a select handful of big companies use the Export-Import Bank to obtain undeserved profits.

Or look at the way the major pharmaceutical companies and big insurance companies got into bed with the White House to line their pockets via Obamacare.

And examine how big financial firms pillaged taxpayers as part of the sleazy TARP bailout.

How about the way big agri-businesses rip off consumers with the ethanol scam.

Don’t forget H&R Block is trying to get the IRS to drive competitors out of the market.

Big Sugar also gets a sweet deal by investing in politicians.

Another example is the way major electronics firms enriched themselves by getting Washington to ban incandescent light bulbs.

Needless to say, we can’t overlook Obama’s corrupt green-energy programs that fattened the wallets of well-connected donors.

And General Motors became Government Motors thanks to politicians fleecing ordinary Americans.

After looking at that list, I’m surprised that 100 percent of Americans haven’t concluded that the system is rigged for corrupt insiders.

But just in case you think that list is inadequate, let’s look at some new examples.

But first, allow me to reiterate my view on markets.

Simply stated, I believe in genuine unfettered capitalism within a system that protects life, liberty, and property (in other words, “unfettered capitalism” obviously doesn’t include the right to hire a hit man to kill your mother-in-law).

Within those boundaries, I have no objection to people taking risks, accumulating wealth, or losing all their money. Heck, it’s not just that I have “no objection.” I welcome such a system since it means the maximum freedom and prosperity for people, particularly the less fortunate.

But I don’t want people to get rich(er) because they have political allies who will adopt cronyist policies that tilt the playing field in favor of well-connected insiders.

And that’s exactly what’s happening in my two new examples.

First, we have the case of a big Democratic donor who invested a lot of money in a short sell position on Herbalife, which means he will profit if the stock falls in value.

Nothing wrong with that, at least in theory. Short selling can be a very economically beneficial way of correcting markets when something is over-valued. Heck, we would all be much better off today if there had been some short selling to pop the housing bubble before it got so big.

But as Tim Carney explains in a column for the Washington Examiner, this short-selling insider isn’t relying on market forces. Instead, he is asking his buddies in the Obama Administration to use coercive government to hurt the company and lower its value.

Here are some excerpts.

Politically connected hedge-funder Bill Ackman…shorted the nutritional supplement company Herbalife in late 2012… After Ackman’s announcement, Herbalife shares fell from $46 to $27. Ackman kept hammering away, taking his compelling slide show on the road to convince the investing public that Herbalife was a house of cards. But after the initial drop, Herbalife stock rebounded… But Ackman had another weapon in his arsenal. Namely: Big Government. Ackman lobbied congresswoman Linda Sánchez, D-Calif., to sic the Federal Trade Commission on Herbalife. Sanchez complied. Ackman also…“paid civil rights organizations at least $130,000 to join his effort by helping him collect the names of people who claimed they were victimized by Herbalife in order to send the leads to regulators…” Ackman’s firm, Pershing Square Capital Management, hired an army of K Street lobbyists — paying a combined $14,000 a month to three firms that disclose lobbying for him — to turn the government against Herbalife.

What reprehensible behavior on the part of Ackman.

I have no idea whether Herbalife is a good company or a bad company. And I have no idea whether its stock is over-valued or under-valued.

But I do know that Ackman shouldn’t be getting his political buddies to intervene. As Tim points out, this is a recipe for rampant cronyism.

This is different from ordinary lobbying. Typically, companies lobby to protect or subsidize their business. When hedge funds play Ackman’s game, helping or hurting some other company is the entirety of that business — and so lobbying can become the core of their business plan. We’ve seen it before. Investor Steve Eisman took a short position on for-profit colleges and lobbied Congress and the Department of Education to crack down on them. The Obama administration this month announced new proposed regulations on these colleges.

Now let’s look at another example.

Only this time it involves a big-donor Republican who wants favors from big government.

As the Washington Post reports, Sheldon Adelson doesn’t want his casinos to face competition from the Internet.

Given the more than $100 million that Sheldon Adelson has donated lately to Republican causes, the billionaire casino tycoon is well-positioned to get what he wants from a GOP-dominated Congress. But it turns out that the item on top of Adelson’s wish list — a ban on Internet gambling — is encountering resistance. And it’s not Democrats who stand in his way but a small group of fellow conservatives. …Online betting has been embraced by a number of Adelson’s industry rivals and several states eager for the additional tax revenue it provides….Yet the move to the Internet has also been seen as a threat that could deplete the customer base for Adelson’s brick-and-mortar casino resorts. …Half of the 22 Republican members of the House Judiciary Committee have co-sponsored the Adelson-backed legislation.

So what’s the status of the battle?

…conservative opposition began to emerge. …leaders of the other groups, including the American Conservative Union, did not mention Adelson by name. But their letter follows the publication this week of a fiery online column by former congressman Ron Paul (R-Tex.), the libertarian hero and father of potential presidential candidate Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.). He called the bill an example of “crony capitalism” written “for the benefit of one powerful billionaire.” …Adelson called the 2011 Justice Department legal opinion a mistake and has taken steps to rein in online gambling, fighting state-level proposals to authorize it and pushing for the federal ban. A company lawyer penned an initial draft of the Restoration of America’s Wire Act — later refined and introduced last year by Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) — which would effectively prevent states from authorizing online betting.

Ugh, how nauseating.

Though I’m glad to see that there is opposition inside the GOP to Adelson’s self-serving proposal.

I realize we can’t say for sure whether opponents are motivated solely by good principles of non-intervention and federalism. Perhaps they’ve received money from interest groups on the other side, but at least there is resistance and presumably some of that opposition is for the right reasons.

By contrast, I’m not aware of any Democrats who are opposed to Ackman’s cronyist attack on Herbalife.

The moral of the story is that big government enables insider corruption. Which is the message of this video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

But if you don’t want to watch the video, just remember the simple lesson of today’s column, which is that all the examples of sleazy cronyism we discussed (both the new ones and the old ones) were only possible because government had the power to trump free markets.

Now let’s return to where we started. Yes, a growing number of Americans are getting disillusioned, and with good reason. But will the good people in Washington appeal to them with a principled campaign against corporate welfare and other policies that help insider fat cats?

Or will it be business as usual, with GOP cronyists replacing Democrat cronyists?

Even worse, will statists latch onto the issue and say the solution is to impose higher tax rates? That presumably would take some money from rich insiders, but it also would penalize folks who earn money honestly.

And it means the money that consumers lose because of cronyism winds up in the pockets of politicians.

Wouldn’t it be better to simply get rid of the bad subsidies and handouts and solve the real problem?

P.S. Since today’s column looks at capitalism vs cronyism, here’s the famous example of how you can explain various economic systems using two cows.

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While I often complain about government waste and stupidity, I’m not even sure what to say about this grim bit of news from Reuters.

General Motors Co sold a record number of Chevrolet Volt sedans in August — but that probably isn’t a good thing for the automaker’s bottom line. Nearly two years after the introduction of the path-breaking plug-in hybrid, GM is still losing as much as $49,000 on each Volt it builds, according to estimates provided to Reuters by industry analysts and manufacturing experts. Cheap Volt lease offers meant to drive more customers to Chevy showrooms this summer may have pushed that loss even higher. There are some Americans paying just $5,050 to drive around for two years in a vehicle that cost as much as $89,000 to produce. …The weak sales are forcing GM to idle the Detroit-Hamtramck assembly plant that makes the Chevrolet Volt for four weeks from September 17, according to plant suppliers and union sources. It is the second time GM has had to call a Volt production halt this year. GM acknowledges the Volt continues to lose money, and suggests it might not reach break even until the next-generation model is launched in about three years.

Gee, it’s almost as if everything that critics have said all along is right.

But not to worry, taxpayers are underwriting the costs. So if bigger subsidies are the price of buying support from the UAW and allowing fat-cat incompetent managers to stay on the job, that just means a bigger tab to pay for the rest of us.

How comforting.

P.S. If you’re a taxpayer and need to be cheered up, these cartoons may help.

P.P.S. This spoof video on the Volt may be even funnier.

P.P.P.S. Last but not least, Government Motors plans to build on the success of the Volt with the Obummer. It was due in 2011, but standard government incompetence has pushed back the release date.

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Republicans are telling voters that they’ve learned the hard lessons from the 2006 and 2008 elections and that they are back on the side of taxpayers. I’m not convinced, which is why I’ve outlined some key tests that will demonstrate whether the GOP genuinely supports limited government.

o No tax increases, since more money for Washington will encourage a bigger burden of government and undermine prosperity.

o To stop bailouts for Europe’s decrepit welfare states, no more money for the International Monetary Fund.

o Reform the biased number-crunching methodology at the Congressional Budget Office and Joint Committee on Taxation.

o No more money from American taxpayers to subsidize the left-wing bureaucrats at the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

I have another item to add to this list, and it’s one that may actually go the right way.

It appears that there’s a chance to end a major source of corporate welfare known as the Export-Import Bank. As the irreplaceable Tim Carney notes, a handful of Republicans are standing up for free markets over corrupt cronyism.

Ex-Im reauthorization typically passes easily. But after the Wall Street bailouts, Fannie Mae’s bailout, Solyndra’s collapse, and the rise of the Tea Party, many conservatives in Washington have grown hostile to corporate welfare. The free-enterprise Club for Growth, which was central in 2010 in helping conservatives and hurting moderate Republicans, blasted Ex-Im as “nothing more than a corporate welfare slush fund for companies with the best lobbyists.”

You won’t be surprised to learn that the President wants to expand this honeypot of corporate welfare. Here’s some of what George Will wrote about Obama’s plan to divert more capital to subsidize the well-connected.

This looks like a promise to compound market distortions by further politicizing credit markets, while enunciating no limiting principle. Obama is directing the bank to offer United Airlines a subsidy to match any subsidy Canada offers to persuade United to choose the Montreal-made Bombardier as United chooses between it, Boeing and Airbus. So American taxpayers will subsidize United to subsidize Boeing, which is already being subsidized in ways injurious to Delta and others.

Other than self-interested companies with their snouts in the trough – and the politicians and lobbyists they finance, it is very difficult to find any legitimate argument for this cesspool of cronyism.

One of the few self-professed conservatives to support the program is Hugh Hewitt, though I’m befuddled how anybody who supports corporate welfare (and Mitt Romney) can call himself a conservative.

But let’s set that aside. Hewitt’s main argument is that exports are good and that the federal government should subsidize good things. If that argument sounds familiar, it’s probably because you’ve heard Barack Obama say that health insurance is good and that the federal government should subsidize good things.

If you think I’m being unfair, I invite you to read the column. You’ll be especially amused by this passage.

Hamilton argued for a trading empire, a robust union deploying its combined power and resources to advance the nation’s interests abroad to the benefit of its merchants and thus its people at home.

Sounds reasonable, but Hewitt fails to mention that Hamilton’s view of “a robust union” did not include subsidized exports. Heck, Hewitt notes earlier in his column didn’t exist until it was created during the New Deal – about 130 years after Hamilton’s death!

Besides, the Export-Import Bank doesn’t even have an impact on trade balances, as explained by my colleague Sallie James, so mercantilists are barking up the wrong tree.

The Ex-Im Bank at best recreates, and at worst misallocates, private financial behavior. And to what end? The U.S. General Accounting Office (now the Government Accounting Office) has pointed out that“export promotion programs cannot produce a substantial change in the U.S. trade balance.” A country’s trade balance is driven largely by underlying macroeconomic factors, such as the ratio of savings to investment.  …rather than authorizing an increase in the Ex-Im Bank’s operating bud-get, or expanding its role in the U.S. economy,Congress should recognize that the alleged justifications for the Ex-Im Bank’s existence are hollow and abolish the agency completely.

Let’s also address the argument of Frank Gaffney, who normally is sensible about public policy. He makes the claim that the Export-Import bank is a profitable activity for the Treasury.

the Export-Import Bank is a money-making activity for the U.S. government.  According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, since 2005, Ex-Im loans, guarantees and insurance programs have returned $3.4 billion over and above its costs and loss reserves, with a default rate of less than 2%.  That includes $400 million in 2011 alone.

Since defenders of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac made the same claims up until the eve of the financial crisis, this is not exactly a compelling claim. And deposit insurance premiums were a money-maker for the federal government prior to the Savings & Loan crisis about 20 years ago.

It’s possible, of course, that the Ex-Im Bank avoids losses in the future, but that’s not the key point. The real issue is whether the allocation of capital should be distorted by government subsidies. I imagine the government could “profit” by giving sweetheart loans to selected big companies, which would allow those firms to undercut their competitors. Such a scheme might generate some revenue, but it would still undermine prosperity and foment corruption.

Last but not least, don’t forget the moral component. This is a debate about whether ordinary Americans should directly and indirectly pay for a program that enriches some of the biggest companies and richest shareholders in America.

This galls me so much that I’m motivated to create another narcissistic poster (adding to Mitchell’s Law and Mitchell’s Golden Rule), which I’ll call Mitchell’s Guide to an Ethical Bleeding Heart.

This is a formalized version of something I wrote when writing last year about a disgraceful welfare queen.

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President Obama, echoed by the establishment media, routinely trumpets Warren Buffett’s support for higher taxes.

If this rich guy is willing to pay more, the story goes, then surely the rest of us peasants should just roll over and acquiesce to the President’s class-warfare tax policy.

Well, one reason we shouldn’t surrender is that Buffett is either stupid or dishonest. In previous posts, I’ve exposed his fiscal innumeracy and explained that he is understating his own tax rate.

I also posted a video exposing the hypocrisy of rich leftists, who refuse to write checks to Uncle Sam notwithstanding their self-proclaimed willingness to pay more. As far as I’m aware, this also describes Buffett.

But maybe all this tax talk is a distraction. Perhaps the real story is that Buffett is a clever political manipulator and that his support for higher taxes is a way for him to pay back the politicians who have enacted policies to line his pockets.

Here are some very revealing passages from a new Reason column by Peter Schweizer. We start with the image that Buffett is creating for himself.

He frequently takes to the nation’s op-ed pages with populist-sounding arguments, such as his August 2010 plea in The New York Times for the government to stop “coddling” the “super-rich” and start raising their taxes.

Schweizer than puts forth an alternative hypothesis.

Warren Buffett is very much a political entrepreneur; his best investments are often in political relationships. In recent years, Buffett has used taxpayer money as a vehicle to even greater profit and wealth. Indeed, the success of some of his biggest bets and the profitability of some of his largest investments rely on government largesse and “coddling” with taxpayer money.

Buffett’s self-interested behavior during the Wall Street bailout is especially revealing.

…on September 23 that he became a highly visible player in the drama, investing $5 billion in Goldman Sachs, which was overleveraged and short on cash. Buffett’s play gave the investment bank a much-needed cash infusion, making a heck of a deal for himself in return: Berkshire Hathaway received preferred stock with a 10 percent dividend yield and an attractive option to buy another $5 billion in stock at $115 a share. Wall Street was on fire, and Buffett was running toward the flames.

What’s remarkable is that Buffett basically admitted he was investing money in the expectation that Uncle Sam was going to make his investment profitable.

 But he was doing so with the expectation that the fire department (that is, the federal government) was right behind him with buckets of bailout money. As he admitted on CNBC at the time, “If I didn’t think the government was going to act, I wouldn’t be doing anything this week.”

According to Schweizer’s analysis, Buffett very much needed a pipeline to the Treasury because of his investments in Goldman Sachs and other financial institutions.

Buffett needed the bailout. In addition to Goldman Sachs, which was not as badly leveraged as some of its competitors, Buffett was heavily invested in several other banks, such as Wells Fargo and U.S. Bancorp, that were also at risk and in need of federal cash. So it’s no surprise that Buffett began campaigning for the $700 billion Trouble Asset Relief Program (TARP) that was being hammered out in Washington. …Buffett received better terms for his Goldman investment than the government got for its bailout. His dividend was set at 10 percent, while the government’s was 5 percent. Had the bailout not gone through, and had Goldman not been given such generous terms under TARP, things would have been very different for Buffett. As it stood, the arrangement with Goldman Sachs earned Berkshire about $500 million a year in dividends. “We love the investment!” he exclaimed to Berkshire investors.

The same was true for his investment with General Electric.

The General Electric deal also was profitable. As Reuters business columnist Rolfe Winkler noted on his blog in August 2009: “Were it not for government bailouts, for which Buffett lobbied hard, many of his company’s stock holdings would have been wiped out.” …Buffett did very well with Goldman Sachs and GE too after they received their bailout money. His net gain from General Electric as of April 2011 was $1.2 billion. His profits from the Goldman deal by then had exceeded the gains of July 2009, reaching as high as $3.7 billion. He had bet on his ability to help secure the bailout, and the bet paid off.

I don’t know whether the $1.2 billion and $3.7 billion profits were for Berkshire Hathaway of for Buffett, but he still would be accumulating lots of additional wealth even if it was the former.

It also seems that Buffett’s support for the faux stimulus may have been for pecuniary reasons, or at least has a self-interested component.

In late 2009, Buffett made his largest investment ever when he decided to buy Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway (BNSF). It was not just an endorsement of the railroad industry’s financials; it was also a huge bet on the budget priorities of his friend Barack Obama. …the railroad industry saw Buffett’s involvement as very helpful, precisely because he was so politically connected. “It’s a positive for the rail industry because of Buffett’s influence in Washington,” Henry Lampe, president of the short-haul railroad Chicago South Shore & South Bend, told the Journal. …After Buffett took over the railroad company, he dramatically increased spending on lobbyists. Berkshire spent $1.2 million on lobbyists in 2008, but by 2009 its budget had jumped to $9.8 million, where it more or less remained. Pouring money into lobbying is perhaps the best investment that Buffett could make. …Buffett also owns MidAmerican Energy Holdings, which received $93.4 million in stimulus money. General Electric, in which he owns a $5 billion stake, was one of the largest recipients of stimulus money in the country.

By the way, Bloomberg reported that the President’s decision to kill the Keystone Pipeline was a boon to Burlington Northern.

Was it part of a quid pro quo? We don’t know, but Schweizer’s conclusion is right on the mark.

Warren Buffett is a financial genius. But even better for his portfolio, though worse for the rest of us, he is a political genius.

And if you want more info on Buffett’s unseemly connections with Washington, the invaluable Tim Carney has a column about how the political elite coddles Warren Buffett and another looking at how Buffett profits from bailouts.

The bottom line is simple. When people get rich by providing goods and services in a competitive market, that’s capitalism. When they get rich because of subsidies, bailouts, preferences, and handouts provided by the ruling class, that’s Argentina.

I have no idea whether Buffett is corrupt, but I know he is benefiting from a corrupt system. So it’s understandable that people like me suspect that his endorsement of higher taxes is not because of a mistaken view of fiscal policy, but rather because he wants to do something nice for the politicians who rig the rules to give him more wealth.

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It isn’t fair to compare and contrast the views of a distinguished economist with the envious ramblings of a career politician/community activist. But it’s also not right for the government to use coercion to impose bad policy, so I don’t feel guilty about sharing this excerpt from a recent Walter Williams column.

President Barack Obama, in stoking up class warfare, said, “I do think at a certain point you’ve made enough money.” This is lunacy. Andrew Carnegie’s steel empire produced the raw materials that built the physical infrastructure of the United States. Bill Gates co-founded Microsoft and produced software products that aided the computer revolution. But Carnegie had amassed quite a fortune long before he built Carnegie Steel Co., and Gates had quite a fortune by 1990. Had they the mind of our president, we would have lost much of their contributions, because they had already “made enough money.” Class warfare thrives on ignorance about the sources of income. Listening to some of the talk about income differences, one would think that there’s a pile of money meant to be shared equally among Americans. Rich people got to the pile first and greedily took an unfair share. Justice requires that they “give back.” Or, some people talk about unequal income distribution as if there were a dealer of dollars. The reason some people have millions or billions of dollars while others have very few is the dollar dealer is a racist, sexist, a multinationalist or just plain mean. Economic justice requires a re-dealing of the dollars, income redistribution or spreading the wealth, where the ill-gotten gains of the few are returned to their rightful owners. In a free society, for the most part, people with high incomes have demonstrated extraordinary ability to produce valuable services for — and therefore please — their fellow man. People voluntarily took money out of their pockets to purchase the products of Gates, Pfizer or IBM. High incomes reflect the democracy of the marketplace. The reason Gates is very wealthy is millions upon millions of people voluntarily reached into their pockets and handed over $300 or $400 for a Microsoft product. Those who think he has too much money are really registering disagreement with decisions made by millions of their fellow men. In a free society, in a significant way income inequality reflects differences in productive capacity, namely one’s ability to please his fellow man.

Here’s my contribution to the debate, a video listing five reasons why class-warfare tax policy is destructive.

The only point worth adding is that not all wealth is legitimate. Those who profit from crony capitalism and/or insider connections have accumulated money through coercion, not through their ability to serve the needs of others.

That’s why I explained, in this interview, that it is important for defenders of capitalism to draw a bright-line distinction between earning honest wealth through free markets and obtaining dishonest loot via statism.

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After any news appearance, I torment myself by watching the clip and telling myself I should have said something differently or raised a different point.

But I’m actually happy with this appearance on Fox Business News because I (hopefully) explained the difference between wealth that is honestly accumulated and loot that is obtained through government coercion.

I also am pleased when I get to use the line about “capitalism without bankruptcy is like religion without hell.” One of the reasons I loathe bailouts is that such corrupt practices discredit capitalism.

If the Occupy Wall Street folks actually understood the difference between capitalism and cronyism, there’s a chance they might join the right side.

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I’ll start with an important caveat and state that Ford is far from a perfect company. It has its snout in the trough for boondoggles such as green energy programs. And it happily benefits from protectionist restrictions on foreign pickup trucks and SUVs.

That having been said, there is an enormous difference between Ford, which did not get bailout cash, and the moochers and looters at GM and Chrysler. Which is why I said on TV last year that all ethical people should boycott the latter two companies.

And I’m very proud that other Americans feel the same way. Here are some excerpts from a story in the UK-based Daily Mail.

The Rasmussen Poll asked likely voters: “Have You or Anyone in Family Bought Car from Ford Because Didn’t Take Government Bailout?” 19% said yes, including 33% of the people 18-29 — and 28% of black voters — and 32% of government workers. …25% said yes when asked “Has Bailout and Government Takeover of GM Caused You or Anyone You Know to Avoid Buying GM Car?” …Rasmussen also asked: “Does Fact that GM Took Bailout Money Make You More/Less Likely to Buy GM Car?” 50% said less likely — just 4% said more likely. To the question “Ford Didn’t Take Bailout Funding. Make You More/Less Likely to Buy from Ford?” — 51% said more likely and 12% said less likely.

Here is an ad that Ford apparently is not using anymore because of pressure from the Obama Administration. But please share this link so more people can see it. Kudos to Chris, a patriot in the finest sense.

By the way, some statists are arguing that the bailouts are a success because GM and Chrysler are still alive. But as I’ve explained before, any money-losing entity can be kept alive in perpetuity (or at least ’til the point of Greek-style collapse) by raping and pillaging taxpayers.

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