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Posts Tagged ‘Corruption’

If you ask what worries me about the incoming Trump Administration, I’ll immediately point to a bunch of policy issues.

Others, though, are more focused on whether Trump’s business empire will distort decisions in the White House.

Here’s what Paul Krugman recently wrote about Trump and potential corruption.

…he’s already giving us an object lesson in what real conflicts of interest look like, as authoritarian governments around the world shower favors on his business empire. Of course, Donald Trump could be rejecting these favors and separating himself and his family from his hotels and so on. But he isn’t. In fact, he’s openly using his position to drum up business. …The question you need to ask is why this matters. …America is a very rich country, whose government spends more than $4 trillion a year, so even large-scale looting amounts to rounding error. What’s important is not the money that sticks to the fingers of the inner circle, but what they do to get that money, and the bad policy that results. …what’s truly scary is the potential impact of corruption on foreign policy. …someplace like Vladimir Putin’s Russia can easily funnel vast sums to the man at the top… So how bad will the effects of Trump-era corruption be? The best guess is, worse than you can possibly imagine.

I’m tempted to ask why Krugman wasn’t similarly worried about corruption over the past eight years. Was he fretting about Solyndra-type scams? About the pay-to-play antics at the Clinton Foundation? About Operation Choke Point and arbitrary denial of financial services to law-abiding citizens?

He seems to think that the problem of malfeasance only exists when his team isn’t in power. But that’s totally backwards. As I wrote back in 2010, people should be especially concerned and vigilant when their party holds power. It’s not just common sense. It should be a moral obligation.

But even if Krugman is a hypocrite, that doesn’t mean he’s wrong. At least not in this case. He is absolutely on the mark when he frets about the “incentives” for massive looting by Trump and his allies.

But what frustrates me is that he doesn’t draw the obvious conclusion, which is that the incentive to loot mostly exists because there’s an ability to loot. And the ability to loot mostly exists because the federal government is so big and has so much power.

And as Lord Acton famously warned, power is very tempting and very corrupting.

Which is why I’m hoping that Krugman will read John Stossel’s new column for Reason. In the piece, John correctly points out that the only way to “drain the swamp” is to shrink the size and scope of government.

…today’s complex government allows the politically connected to corrupt… most everything. …In the swamp, no one but taxpayers pays for their mistakes. …it’s well worth it for companies to invest in lobbyists and fixers who dive into the swamp to extract subsidies.For taxpayers? Not so much. While the benefits to lobbyists are concentrated, taxpayer costs are diffuse. …Draining the swamp would mean not just taking freebies away from corporations—or needy citizens—but eliminating complex handouts like Obamacare. Candidate Trump said he would repeal Obamacare. Will he? He’s already backed off of that promise, saying he likes two parts of the law—the most expensive parts.

As you can see, Stossel understands “public choice” and recognizes that making government smaller is the only sure-fire way of reducing public corruption.

Which is music to my ears, for obvious reasons.

By the way, the same problem exists in many other countries and this connects to the controversies about Trump and his business dealings. Many of the stories about potential misbehavior during a Trump Administration focus on whether the President will adjust American policy in exchange for permits and other favors from foreign governments.

But that temptation wouldn’t exist if entrepreneurs didn’t need to get permission from bureaucrats before building things such as hotels and golf courses. In other words, if more nations copied Singapore and New Zealand, there wouldn’t be much reason to worry whether the new president was willing to swap policy for permits.

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It’s easy to define and/or understand most statist policies.

  • We know that a tax increase is when politicians take (or, given the Laffer Curve, try to take) more of your money based on your decisions to work, save, shop, or invest.
  • We know that protectionism is when politicians use taxes and other policies to restrict your freedom to buy goods and services produced in other nations.
  • We know that a minimum wage mandate is when politicians criminalize employment contracts between consenting adults, thus harming low-skilled workers.
  • We know that Keynesian “stimulus” is when politicians borrow from one part of the economy and spend in another part of the economy and pretend there’s more money.

The list is potentially endless, but there’s one statist policy – cronyism – that I haven’t added to the list because I haven’t thought of a simple definition.

Are bailouts cronyism? Yes, but it’s more than that. Are subsidies cronyism? Yes, but it’s more than that. Are favors in the tax code cronyism? Yes, but it’s more than that. Are trade barriers cronyism? Yes, but it’s more than that.

You’re probably noticing a pattern, which is why this new visual from the Mercatus Center is helpful. It illustrates that there are many policies that should be considered cronyism.

And Mercatus comes up with a definition that we can add to our list.

  • We know that cronyism is when politicians create “privileges that governments give to particular businesses and industries.”

Speaking of which, one of the most damaging features of cronyism is the way that it gives capitalism a bad name.

Many people equate free markets with “business.” So when people in the business sector get special favors, regular folks conclude that capitalism is a “rigged” system.

In theory, this false impression could be offset by an aggressive educational campaign by those who support free enterprise. Unfortunately, that task is rather difficult since many people assume Republicans are the pro-capitalism party. So when they see the GOP favoring corrupt handouts to business such as the Export-Import Bank and the sleazy ethanol program, they conclude – once again – that capitalism is rigged for the politically powerful.

And the battle to separate capitalism from cronyism is further hindered when major figures in the business world (such as Warren Buffett) get in bed with government.

Another example is Elon Musk, the head of Tesla, Solar City, and SpaceX. He is known as a visionary entrepreneur, which is good. But Andy Quinlan of the Center for Freedom and Prosperity explains that he also has put taxpayers on the hook to underwrite and prop up much of his business activities.

It was announced this week that one of Elon Musk’s companies, Tesla Motors, will buy one of his other companies, SolarCity, for an all-stock deal worth $2.6 billion. …With the amount of taxpayer support both companies have received, perhaps the rest of us should get a vote… The deal comes as SolarCity has floundered despite significant taxpayer support through a bevy of state and federal tax credits and subsidies. Nevertheless, the solar energy company’s stock has been in long term decline as the company struggles to develop a profitable market not reliant on generous helpings of taxpayer support. Tesla, too, has fed repeatedly at the government trough. The government provided federal loan guarantees and tax credits to help manufacture its electric vehicles. It also subsidized the purchase of those same vehicles to increase sales. Even still, the company makes more money selling “carbon credits” to other manufacturers than it does electric vehicles. …Musk’s other endeavor, SpaceX, also relies heavily on government. Obviously much of its business comes from government contracts, but more interesting is how those contracts are apparently obtained. …this year’s National Defense Authorization Act contains an amendment from Senator John McCain designed to eliminate from competition the Defense Department’s current supplier of rockets and pave the way for SpaceX to take over, despite the fact that its rockets aren’t yet powerful enough for the job.

Writing for Reason, Veronique de Rugy adds her insight

Elon Musk delivered a much-anticipated speech…where he laid out his vision for colonizing Mars…a testament to human innovation and determination. …it might be more impressive if Musk could provide a vision for how his companies can succeed here on Earth first, especially without heavy reliance on taxpayer support. …Musk is no stranger to cozy relations with federal and state governments. All three of his companies have benefited heavily from taxpayers. Yet despite generous green energy handouts, his SolarCity is heavily indebted. He now wants to merge it with his electric car company, Tesla Motors, which also benefited from almost $1.3 billion in subsidies. Solidifying his crony credentials, the epitome of crony capitalism itself, the Export-Import Bank of the United States, has subsidized the payloads for numerous SpaceX launches. The Ex-Im Bank’s chairman misrepresented this as support for “small business.” …There’s no doubt that Musk is an impressive salesman and innovator. …Now that he has set his sights on Mars, let’s hope—for the future of science and exploration—that he…has the courtesy to leave taxpayers out of it.

Amen.

It’s great when entrepreneurs are successful. And I don’t resent their wealth in the slightest.

But only if they earn their money honestly, in a genuinely free and competitive market.

Cronyism, by contrast, is a cancer that compromises and erodes genuine capitalism.

P.S. Let’s close on a more upbeat and entertaining topic, which is the bipartisan mockery of politicians.

I shared a very funny post about American leftists escaping to Canada after the Tea Party election of 2010.

Here’s some related humor about Canada closing the border for the next eight years.

One unfortunate aspect of being a libertarian is that you’re almost always unhappy about whoever becomes President. Indeed, I’ve only been pleased with one President who has served in my lifetime.

So I’m not overflowing with sympathy for Republicans who were unhappy after the 2012 election. And I’m similarly immune to feelings of empathy for Democrats who are unhappy about this election.

Especially the leftists who are engaging is hysterical hyperbolic histrionics (how’s that for alliteration!) about Trump. Here’s some great satire about the millennials protesting against Trump’s victory.

As anti-Trump rallies nationwide turned hostile overnight with widespread reports of violence, looting, vandalism, and death threats against the president-elect and his supporters, police in numerous major cities were able to instill calm and regain control by handing out participation trophies to all millennial protesters who were enraged about losing the election, sources confirmed. …“It’s a foreign notion to them. Even in sports—win or lose, everyone won, and everyone got a trophy no matter what. This is the millennial way,” he said. “So I had the idea—hey, why not start handing out participation trophies to the protesters, and telling them ‘Hey, you know what? You may have lost the election, but look—everyone gets a trophy. Everyone’s a winner.’” Seeing how the trophies had an instantaneous calming effect on the millennials and filled them with a sense of fulfillment and achievement, word spread quickly among police departments nationwide, and emergency trophies were procured by the thousands for use at the rallies.

Speaking of which, here’s an amusing image that has a serious message. I agree with leftists who fear that Trump may abuse the vast powers of the federal government. But they supported Obama’s dubious expansion of executive power, so they don’t have much credibility on the issue.

Reminds me of this clever poster that the Libertarian Party created to mock the Occupy crazies.

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I’ve written before about Hillary Clinton’s unethical and (presumably) illegal actions, both in terms of her email server and the Clinton Foundation.

We’ve probably only seen the tip of the iceberg, but one thing that can be said with confidence is that there is strong scent of corruption, cronyism, and insider dealing that surrounds Mrs. Clinton.

Every day seems to bring new evidence. Writing for the Wall Street Journal, Kimberly Strassel puts it in blunt terms.

A Hillary Clinton presidency will be built, from the ground up, on self-dealing, crony favors, and an utter disregard for the law. This isn’t a guess. …It comes in the form of a memo written in 2011 by longtime Clinton errand boy Doug Band, who for years worked simultaneously at the Clinton Foundation and at the head of his lucrative consulting business, Teneo. It is astonishingly detailed proof that the Clintons do not draw any lines between their “charitable” work, their political activity, their government jobs or (and most important) their personal enrichment. Every other American is expected to keep these pursuits separate, as required by tax law, anticorruption law and campaign-finance law. For the Clintons, it is all one and the same—the rules be damned. …Any nonprofit lawyer in America knows the ironclad rule of keeping private enrichment away from tax-exempt activity, for the simple reason that mixing the two involves ripping off taxpayers. Every election lawyer in the country lives in fear of stepping over the lines governing fundraising and election vehicles. The Clintons recognize no lines. Here’s the lasting takeaway: The Clintons…know the risks. And yet they geared up the foundation and these seedy practices even as Mrs. Clinton was making her first bid for the presidency. They continued them as she sat as secretary of state. They continue them still, as she nears the White House. This is how the Clintons operate. They don’t change. Any one who pulls the lever for Mrs. Clinton takes responsibility for setting up the nation for all the blatant corruption that will follow.

Let’s look at some examples.

And we’ll start with the example of a Swiss bank that was being wrongfully persecuted by the American government for the supposed crime of protecting the privacy of clients (i.e., for following Swiss law inside Switzerland).

In other words, I’m very sympathetic to the bank. But I’m not a big fan of the Clintons using the bank’s legal woes as an opportunity to raise a bunch of money in exchange for a favorable disposition. Yet that’s exactly what happened, as reported by the U.K.-based Guardian.

In February 2009, the IRS sued UBS and demanded that it disclose the names of 52,000 possible American tax evaders with secret Swiss bank accounts. …On 19 August 2009, it was announced that UBS would pay no fine and would provide the IRS with information about 4,450 accounts within a year. Since the deal was struck, disclosures by the foundation and the bank show the donations by UBS to the Clinton Foundation growing “from less than $60,000 through 2008 to a cumulative total of about $600,000 by the end of 2014”… The bank also teamed up with the foundation on the Clinton Economic Opportunity Initiative, creating a pilot entrepreneur program through which UBS offered $32m in loans to businesses, the newspaper reported. Other UBS donations to the Clinton Foundation include a $350,000 donation from June 2011 and a $100,000 donation for a charity golf tournament. Additionally, UBS paid more than $1.5m in speaking fees to Bill Clinton between 2001 and 2014, the newspaper reported.

James Freeman, in a column for the Wall Street Journal, cites two other examples of Clinton-style pay-to-play. The first example deals with Morocco.

We now know from emails published by WikiLeaks that before Mrs. Clinton formally launched her campaign, she arranged for the king of Morocco to donate $12 million to Clinton Foundation programs. What’s significant about the Morocco case is that for years the Clintons peddled the fiction that donors write checks simply to support wondrous acts of Clintonian charity. But that cover story isn’t available here. Mrs. Clinton’s trusted aide Huma Abedin put it in writing: The Moroccans agreed to the deal on the condition that Mrs. Clinton would participate at a conference in their country. Panicked Clinton-campaign aides persuaded Mrs. Clinton to avoid such a trip before launching her candidacy—and the foundation got the king to settle for Bill and Chelsea Clinton. But the record is clear. The king wanted the access, influence and prestige that all strongmen crave from legitimate democracies.

The second example comes from Kazakhstan.

This wasn’t the first time the Clintons satisfied such a desire while collecting megadonations. When it comes to human rights, Kazakhstan’s dictator, Nursultan Nazarbayev, makes Morocco’s king look enlightened. In power since 1991 and never freely elected, Mr. Nazarbayev must have enjoyed the sensation of Mr. Clinton endorsing him to lead an international election-monitoring group in 2005. The Kazakh strongman knows how to return a favor, and he granted valuable mining concessions to Clinton Foundation donors. The donors then built a global uranium powerhouse that was eventually sold to the Russians in a deal that required the 2010 approval of a U.S. government committee that included Mrs. Clinton’s State Department.

There’s a lot more material I could share, but the purpose of today’s column isn’t to demonstrate Hillary’s recent unethical behavior.

Instead, I want to show how she has a decades-long pattern of using government for self-advancement and self-enrichment. And I’ll follow by drawing (what should be) a very obvious lesson about public policy.

To keep today’s column manageable, let’s review just two examples.

First, let’s go back more than 20 years to the early days of Bill Clinton’s presidency. Peggy Noonan explains Hillary’s attempt to replace the career professionals at the White House travel with cronies from Arkansas.

Why don’t people like Hillary Clinton? …Why, when some supposed scandal breaks and someone says she’s hiding something, do people, including many of her supporters, assume it’s true? …the scandals stretch back…all the way to her beginnings as a national figure. …It was early 1993. …It was the first big case in which she showed poor judgment, a cool willingness to mislead, and a level of political aggression that gave even those around her pause. It was after this mess that her critics said she’d revealed the soul of an East German border guard.

Let’s look at what happened.

On May 19, 1993, less than four months into the administration, the seven men who had long worked in the White House travel office were suddenly and brutally fired. The seven nonpartisan government workers, who helped arrange presidential trips, served at the pleasure of the president. But each new president had kept them on because they were good at their jobs. A veteran civil servant named Billy Dale had worked in the office 30 years and headed it the last 10. He and his colleagues were ordered to clear out their desks and were escorted from the White House, which quickly announced they were the subject of a criminal investigation by the FBI. They were in shock. So were members of the press, who knew Mr. Dale and his colleagues as honest and professional. A firestorm ensued. Under criticism the White House changed its story. They said that they were just trying to cut unneeded staff and save money. Then they said they were trying to impose a competitive bidding process. They tried a new explanation—the travel office shake-up was connected to Vice President Al Gore’s National Performance Review. (Almost immediately Mr. Gore said that was not true.) The White House then said it was connected to a campaign pledge to cut the White House staff by 25%. Finally they claimed the workers hadn’t been fired at all but placed on indefinite “administrative leave.”

Noonan continues.

Why so many stories? Because the real one wasn’t pretty. It emerged in contemporaneous notes of a high White House staffer that the travel-office workers were removed because Mrs. Clinton wanted to give their jobs—their “slots,” as she put it, according to the notes of director of administration David Watkins—to political operatives who’d worked for Mr. Clinton’s campaign. And she wanted to give the travel office business itself to loyalists. There was a travel company based in Arkansas with long ties to the Clintons. There was a charter travel company founded by Harry Thomason, a longtime friend and fundraiser, which had provided services in the 1992 campaign.

Unsurprisingly, Mrs. Clinton lied about her efforts to turn the travel office into a goodie for a crony.

All along Mrs. Clinton publicly insisted she had no knowledge of the firings. Then it became barely any knowledge, then barely any involvement. When the story blew up she said under oath that she had “no role in the decision to terminate the employees.” She did not “direct that any action be taken by anyone.” In a deposition she denied having had a role in the firings, and said she was unable to remember conversations with various staffers with any specificity. A General Accounting Office report found she did play a role. But three years later a memo written by David Watkins to the White House chief of staff, recounting the history of the firings, suddenly surfaced. (“Suddenly surfaced” is a phrase one reads a lot in Clinton scandal stories.) It showed Mrs. Clinton herself directed them.

By the way, the most disgusting part of this scandal is the way Hillary sicced the government on Mr. Dale.

The White House pressed the FBI to investigate, FBI agents balked—on what evidence?—but ultimately there was an investigation, and an audit. …Billy Dale was indicted on charges including embezzlement. The trial lasted almost two weeks. …The jury acquitted him in less than two hours.

In other words, expect to see more Lois Lerner-type scandals if Hillary reaches the White House. There should be little doubt that she will use the power of government to attack her political opponents.

Now let’s go back even further in time, to the late 1970s when Hillary Clinton somehow managed to turn a $1,000 “investment” into $100,000 is less than one year. The New York Times reported on this rather implausible story back in 1994.

…in 1978 Hillary Rodham Clinton invested $1,000 in commodities futures and that the investment grew in 10 months of trading in the notoriously volatile market into a gain of nearly $100,000. Seeking to dispel suggestions that the trades were risk-free and improperly arranged by an Arkansas lawyer who represents one of the state’s most powerful companies, the White House issued a statement this afternoon that said the First Lady had put up her own money and that she bore all of the financial risks in a marketplace where three out of four investors lose money. The officials also released a year’s worth of brokerage statements from one of Mrs. Clinton’s two accounts. …Mrs. Clinton based her trades on information in The Wall Street Journal.

In other words, we’re supposed to believe that Mrs. Clinton, a complete novice, with no experience in the private sector or the investment business, suddenly decided to sink money into a very complex type of speculation.

And we’re supposed to believe that she made a series of very clever market-timing decisions and turned small amount of money into a big pile of money.

Needless to say, even the reporter for the New York Times couldn’t help but express skepticism and doubt. Particularly since nobody was willing to back up Mrs. Clinton’s story.

The White House insisted today that Mrs. Clinton received no improper financial assistance on the trades from the lawyer, James B. Blair, a close friend who at the time was the top lawyer for Tyson Foods of Springdale, Ark., the nation’s biggest poultry company. Mr. Blair has said that he had suggested that she get into the commodities market, and that he used his knowledge of trading to guide her along the way. During Mr. Clinton’s tenure as Governor, Tyson benefited from several state decisions, including favorable environmental rulings, $9 million in state loans, and the placement of company executives on important state boards. …brokers in the Springdale office of Refco where Mrs. Clinton executed the trades, including the one she describes as her personal broker, said in interviews in recent weeks that they have no recollection of ever talking with her about the trades. Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Blair have said that they used Robert L. (Red) Bone, the broker who founded the Springdale office of Refco, a Chicago commodities firm, to execute the trades. But Mr. Bone, who worked at Tyson for 13 years until 1973, insisted in several interviews this month that he has no recollection of ever trading for Mrs. Clinton or talking to her about commodities trades.

Here’s the bottom line. Back when this scandal surfaced in the 1990s, I talked to several people in the financial markets, every one of whom was 99.99 percent certain that Hillary was the beneficiary of a gift (if they were favorable to her) or a bribe (if they were unfavorable to her). And they all agreed that somebody on the inside arranged to give her, after the fact, the winning side of trades in order to make it look like she was simply a good investor.

Moreover, every single Democrat that I talked to admitted (but only off the record) that she was the recipient of a gift or a bribe.

And she hasn’t changed in the past 38 years. Government is a vehicle for personal advancement and personal enrichment.

Now let’s conclude by bring public policy into the discussion. Corrupt politicians are able to amass lots of power and money because government is big and powerful.

And I’m not making a partisan argument. Indeed, here are the same bullet points I used when pointing out the empty futility of Trump’s plan to “drain the swamp” and end DC corruption.

All I’m saying is that Hillary Clinton both supports big government and profits from big government. And as the public sector gets larger, don’t be surprised when you find out that Hillary and her cronies have figured out additional ways of feathering their own nests.

P.S. By the way, I do recognize that there’s an infinitesimally small possibility that Hillary’s story about cattle futures is accurate.

I also recognize, for what it’s worth, that there’s a greater-than-zero possibility that aliens will invade the earth tomorrow.

But neither of these hypotheses is remotely plausible (though if I had to pick, I’d go with the alien invasion for the simple reason that it would bring great joy to Paul Krugman).

P.P.S. Plenty of Republicans will get rich as well as Hillary expands government. If you don’t believe me, just consider how many of them collect campaign cash in exchange for votes in favor of ethanol and the Export-Import Bank.

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The polls are not looking good for Donald Trump. Indeed, I suspect my most recent prediction for the 2016 race gives him too many states.

With time running out, he now faces pressure to come up with some new idea or a new narrative to change the likely outcome.

Which may explain why he just unveiled a new plan to “drain the swamp” in Washington with new ethics rules. Such initiatives tend to be popular with voters, who view Washington as a corrupt mess. And an ethics-reform agenda may be an effective way of reminding voters that Hillary Clinton has major problems with corruption.

But let’s consider whether his plan actually would work. Taken directly from his campaign website, here’s what Trump is proposing.

As you can see, he basically wants to make it harder for Washington insiders to go through the revolving door.

And to augment his lobbying restrictions, Trump also has embraced congressional term limits.

Donald Trump added a new proposal to his recently unveiled ethics reforms package on Tuesday, promising to pursue a constitutional amendment that would impose term limits on members of Congress should he win the election on Nov. 8. …Establishing term limits at the federal level would help “break the cycle of corruption” that has plagued Washington and “give new voices to change so that we can have a government that works again and can function properly,” Trump argued.

For what it’s worth, I suspect many voters will like what Trump is saying.

If you look at Chapman University’s “Survey of American Fears,” the most commonly cited concern is “corruption of government officials.”

For people in the political world, the obvious follow-up issue is whether a popular issue/agenda actually will attract voters. In other words, will people concerned about Washington corruption rally to Trump simply because he highlights the issue.

Beats me.

I’m much more concerned with a different follow-up issue, which is whether his five points (six if you include term limits) would actually work if they were adopted.

To be blunt, I’m not holding my breath. And the reason for my concern is that Trump isn’t proposing to actually drain the swamp. There’s rampant sleaze in Washington because politicians and bureaucrats have massive powers to give undeserved wealth to those with political connections.

In other words, the “swamp” is big government. And since Trump isn’t proposing to shrink the size and scope of Washington, the incentives that currently exist to get unearned wealth via government coercion will still remain.

If you look at Trump’s proposals, what he’s really talking about is a plan to make it somewhat more difficult for certain people to wade into the swamp.

I have no objection, by the way, to additional rules that hinder the ability of politicians, congressional staffers, and presidential appointees to cash in on the connections they’ve made.

But I’m also not naive enough to think that this will reduce Washington sleaze. The policies that Trump is proposing are like pressing down on one part of a balloon and somehow hoping that other parts of the balloon won’t expand. Indeed, that’s the message of my video on the very strong link between the size of government and the amount of corruption.

P.S. Let me add a technical point that is very important in this discussion. Lobbying occurs when someone asks a politician to vote “yes” or “no” on a piece of legislation. It’s not lobbying, however when someone tells a politicians that an idea is good or bad (which is what I often do as part of my job).

But if Trump can change the definition of lobbying for former government officials (the third point in his five-point plan), that might disrupt the status quo for certain people (assuming it could be effectively enforced).

But so long as the size and scope of government isn’t curtailed, that kind of change won’t eliminate the incentive of interest groups to hire people who are allowed to lobby. The only way to reduce corruption is to reduce government.

P.P.S. By the way, restrictions on campaign donations also won’t work.

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Here’s an interesting issue to ponder. Is corruption rampant in government because the perverse incentive structure of politics turns good people into bad people?

Or do bad people naturally gravitate to government and politics because it’s the easiest (and legal, though generally immoral) way to take money from other people?

I guess this is like a chicken-and-egg question with no clear answer, though Mark Twain preferred the latter interpretation.

Though he was being too narrow. Yes, Congress if filled with people who are willing to use coercion to take money from ordinary people in order to line the pockets of their cronies, but this is also true for politicians and bureaucrats in the executive branch, as well as their counterparts at the state and local level.

Let’s look at a couple of oleaginous examples. We’ll start with a grotesque example of nepotism. Except this isn’t a routine example of daddy giving junior an undeserved job in the family company. In this case, we have Washington-style nepotism. Daddy has ransacked taxpayers to line the pockets of his daughter. The Daily Caller has the unseemly details.

More than $9 million of Department of State money has been funneled through the Peace Corps to a nonprofit foundation started and run by Secretary of State John Kerry’s daughter, documents obtained by The Daily Caller News Foundation show. The Department of State funded a Peace Corps program created by Dr. Vanessa Kerry and officials from both agencies, records show. The Peace Corps then awarded the money without competition to a nonprofit Kerry created for the program. Initially, the Peace Corps awarded Kerry’s group — now called Seed Global Health — with a three-year contract worth $2 million of State Department money on Sept. 10, 2012, documents show. Her father was then the chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, which oversees both the Department of State and the Peace Corps. Seed secured a four-year extension in September 2015, again without competition. This time, the Peace Corps gave the nonprofit $6.4 million provided by the Department of State while John Kerry was secretary of state.

What makes this story especially outrageous is that John Kerry is a multi-multi-millionaire, having married in the Heinz family fortune.

Does he really need to pick the pockets of taxpayers to boost his daughter’s finances?

Here’s another example. The Governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, set up an “economic development program” that predictably turned into a playground for the politically well connected (sort of a state version of the corrupt program in Washington that financed Solyndra and other money-losing schemes).

The New York Times outlines this scandal, though be prepared to shower after reading.

Federal corruption charges were announced on Thursday against two former close aides to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a senior state official and six other people, in a devastating blow to the governor’s innermost circle and a repudiation of how his prized upstate economic development programs were managed. The charges against the former aides, Joseph Percoco and Todd R. Howe, and the state official, Alain Kaloyeros, were the culmination of a long-running federal investigation… The charges stemmed from “two overlapping criminal schemes involving bribery, corruption and fraud in the award of hundreds of millions of dollars in state contracts and other official state benefits,” federal prosecutors said in the complaint. Mr. Percoco, who had served as Mr. Cuomo’s executive deputy secretary, is accused of soliciting and taking more than $315,000 in bribes between 2012 and 2016 from two companies… Until January, when Mr. Percoco left the administration…, he was Mr. Cuomo’s all-purpose body man, political enforcer and shadow.

The good news is that at least some of the people in this disgusting display of cronyism may face legal consequences.

Oh, by the way, Cuomo used to be the head of the Department of Housing and Urban Development when regulations were implemented that required Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to make more dodgy housing loans. This guy is a walking disaster area.

For the umpteenth time, the moral of the story is that the only way to reduce corruption in government is to reduce the overall amount of taxing, spending, and regulating.

Or you can magically wish that only angelic people will gravitate to the public sector. Maybe I’m a cynic, but I’ll go with the former option.

P.S. I wrote a few days ago about the IMF’s hypocrisy in attacking Trump for his views on trade taxes. The bureaucrats are right that we shouldn’t increase the tax burden on global commerce. My complaint was that sauce for the goose wasn’t sauce for the gander. Hillary’s plan to increase the tax burden on work and investment is an even bigger threat to growth, yet the IMF gives her a free pass.

Anyhow, one of the points I made is that trade taxes currently are quite low, so they presumably cause only a minor amount of damage, whereas tax rates on work and investment are relatively high, meaning that further increases would be especially debilitating to growth. I cited some research from a Spanish academic to show how trade policy has improved over time, but didn’t have specific details on trade taxation.

My buddy Bryan Riley from the Heritage Foundation has come to my rescue, sharing an article that includes this chart on historical tariff rates.

The bottom line is that trade taxes have declined by somewhere between 75 percent and 90 percent since the end of World War II. This has been a great victory for economic liberty.

Trump should be condemned for wanting to halt further progress and/or go in the wrong direction by boosting trade taxes.

But, to echo what I wrote the other day, Hillary also should be condemned for proposing a different set of tax hikes that would cause even more harm to economic liberty.

P.P.S. I wrote a column earlier this month entitled “Anatomy of a Brutal Tax Beating” to highlight how an expert at the Tax Foundation completely dismantled a silly and unlearned article by a writer for Vox.

Well, we now have an “Anatomy of a Brutal Education Beating.” Except it’s not right-on-left violence. It’s left-on-left violence. Jonathan Chait writes for New York magazine and he formerly had stints at The New Republic and The American Prospect, so he’s definitely not a libertarian type.

But he’s ethical and doesn’t have a high level of tolerance for other leftists who launch dishonest ideological attacks on charter schools. Here’s some of what he wrote while debunking an article by some guy named Charles Pierce.

Esquire’s Charles Pierce, a fervent charter critic, …does not dispute the findings that urban charters in Massachusetts provide dramatic education benefits. He simply doesn’t care. …In the sentence, Pierce goes on to assert that the cap on charters serves a vital purpose. But the Brookings study, which I doubt he’s read, shows the opposite. …The cap in Massachusetts is completely perverse, in fact. It allows more students to enroll in charters serving suburban students, where the charters do not outperform the neighborhood schools, and prevents more students from enrolling in urban charters, where the schools do exceed the traditional neighborhood schools. …Presented with evidence that certain schools are providing a clearly better education to low-income urban students, Pierce argues that education should be denied because … somebody is making money off of it. It is more important to him to stick it to the capitalists than to allow low-income, disproportionately nonwhite students to have a chance to have a better life. …What’s even more perverse about Pierce’s argument is that it is factually wrong. Charters in Massachusetts are not for-profit vehicles. State law prohibits for-profit operators from running a public charter school… The notion that charters are “companies” and an “industry” with “profits” — that is, the entire basis for Pierce’s opposition — is a figment of the imagination. …Pierce rails suspiciously against the donors to the anti-cap side. …It is strange to accuse people who are giving away their money to the cause of educating poor children of not “giv[ing] a rat’s ass about educating children in Roxbury or Mattapan”.

Wow. Chait drove over Pierce, then hit the brakes, put the car in reverse, and then drove over him again just for the fun of it.

A perfect example of the difference between a sincere person of the left and a hack who is probably just flacking for teacher unions.

P.P.P.S. I can’t resist returning to John Kerry. It’s not merely that he’s a staggeringly rich guy who nonetheless sees no problem with diverting money from taxpayers to his daughter. It’s also that he does everything possible to minimize the amount of tax that he pays. Everything possible.

P.P.P.P.S. This column focused on corrupt Democrats, but this is a bipartisan problem. Indeed, the worst offenders are probably Republicans.

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Why did a for-profit college pay former President Bill Clinton the staggering sum of $16.5 million to serve as an “honorary chancellor for Laureate International Universities”? Was it because he had some special insight or expertise on how to improve education?

Why did Goldman Sachs pay former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hundreds of thousands of dollars for a couple of speeches? Was it because she had valuable observations about the economy and investments?

The answer to all those questions is that companies sometimes are willing to transfer large sums of money to influential politicians because they want something in exchange.

In some cases, they want help from powerful insiders so they can use the coercive power of government to take other people’s money, which is reprehensible and disgusting. In other cases, they are seeking to guard against being victimized with high taxes and punitive regulations and so they pay “protection money” to powerful insiders in hopes of being left alone, which is unfortunate but understandable.

In either case (one moral and the other immoral), the companies are making rational decisions. Politicians have immense ability to tax, spend, and regulate, so it makes sense to get on their good side, either by giving them money directly or contributing to their campaigns.

This is a problem in the United States, of course, but it’s also a problem in Europe.

Consider the curious case of José Manuel Barroso, the recently retired President of the European Commission who was recently hired by Goldman Sachs to be “non-executive chairman of Goldman Sachs International.” According the press release from the company, he will…well, it’s not clear what his role will be or what value he will provide. All we get is fluff about his political career and a murky statement that, “He will also be an advisor to Goldman Sachs.”

So let’s look at his Wikipedia bio. Maybe we’ll find some evidence that he has great expertise on investment matters. But all we find there is that he’s been a career politician, first in Portugal and then in Brussels (where he was a bit of a laughingstock).

There’s no indication that he ever held a job in the private sector. But we do get this tidbit.

In his university days, he was one of the leaders of the underground Maoist MRPP (Reorganising Movement of the Proletariat Party, later PCTP/MRPP, Communist Party of the Portuguese Workers/Revolutionary Movement of the Portuguese Proletariat).

That doesn’t sound like the pedigree of someone who just landed a lavishly compensated position in the supposed temple of global capitalism.

But the real story is that Barroso isn’t a communist (at least not now) and Goldman Sachs isn’t a bastion of free markets. Instead, both of them are expert practitioners of cronyism.

Indeed, the cronyism angle is so obvious in this case that the European Commission has launched an ethics probe.

Which is very upsetting to Senor Barroso. The Financial Times reported on the controversy.

José Manuel Barroso has accused the European Commission — a body he led for 10 years — of being “discriminatory” and “inconsistent” after the EU’s executive arm set up an ethics probe to examine his new role at Goldman Sachs. …Mr Barroso vigorously defended his decision to take a job as adviser with the US investment bank, which triggered a backlash across the EU. …French president François Hollande described the appointment as being “legally possible, but morally unacceptable”. …The committee will examine Mr Barroso’s contract to ascertain whether it complies with Mr Barroso’s obligation under EU law “to behave with integrity and discretion” when taking appointments or benefits after leaving office. Campaigners have argued that Mr Barroso could be stripped of his pension — worth €15,000 per month — if he is found to have violated these rules. …Other former members of the commission have gone on to take high-profile roles with big businesses, leading some to claim that Goldman Sachs has been singled out because of its role in the financial crisis.

Though it’s worth noting that Barroso is simply the latest example of a revolving door between senior euro-crats and Goldman Sachs.

The bottom line is that Barroso hasn’t behaved with integrity. But that’s true of his entire career. Taking a position with Goldman Sachs is simply a way of monetizing decades of cronyism.

P.S. Shifting back to the US version of cronyism, Kevin Williamson has a must-read analysis of the corrupt nexus of Wall Street and Washington.

P.P.S. The solution to this mess (other than Glenn Reynold’s revolving-door surtax) is to dramatically shrink the size and scope of government. When there’s less to steal, there will be fewer thieves.

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Back in 2009, I shared some academic research showing the unsavory link between lobbying expenditures and bailout cash from TARP.

Just in case anybody naively thinks that such distasteful favor-swapping no longer occurs, here’s some more evidence. A column in the International Business Times summarizes some new scholarly research, once again showing the corrupt nexus between big government and the financial sector.

…analysis from London Business School professors Ahmed Tahoun and Florin Vasvari analyzed how the personal finances of congressional lawmakers changed once they were appointed to the Senate Finance Committee, the Senate Banking Committee or the House Financial Services Committee. It also evaluated how their finances compared with other lawmakers who are not on those panels. …the researchers found that finance committee members’ personal borrowing tended to jump in the first year they were appointed to the panels — a trend not seen for other lawmakers who were given seats on other powerful committees. Similarly, the data show that upon joining the finance panels, lawmakers tended to be given 32 percent more time — or on average 4 and a half years more — to pay back those new debts than loans they previously had and that other members of Congress have. The study found that lawmakers also “report more favorable debt terms when they join the finance committee, relative to other years and to the terms other congressional members obtain including those on other powerful committees.”

Needless to say, the companies aren’t giving special treatment to these politicians because of altruism. For every quid, there’s a quo.

…the influence may operate in the other direction, too. Looking at which particular financial institutions are lending to lawmakers, the researchers found that underperforming banks provided new — and bigger — loans to more finance committee members than to other Members of Congress. They say that because those firms could face more regulatory scrutiny and financial instability from new federal policies, they are more reliant on strong political connections than competitors that are in better shape.

In other words, if you can’t succeed by competing in the marketplace, then curry favor with politicians so that you can be propped up by big government.

Though companies presumably have learned from the Countrywide scandal to be more cautious about disguising the fact that they are dispensing goodies.

…mortgage industry titan Countrywide Financial created a “VIP loan unit” that gave lower mortgage rates and expedited loan processing services to lawmakers that oversaw legislation affecting the firm. …Democratic U.S. Senators Chris Dodd and Kent Conrad were cleared by the ethics committee, which said they did not knowingly seek the perks. The committee, though, told the lawmakers they “should have exercised more vigilance in your dealings with Countrywide in order to avoid the appearance that you were receiving preferential treatment based on your status as a senator.”

By the way, I’m not exactly shocked that the congressional ethics committee (wow, talk about an oxymoron) didn’t even bother slapping the wrists of the politicians who got the favors. After all, imagine how much harder it would be to raise campaign cash if politicians couldn’t use the coercive power of government to swap favors with interest groups.

But the folks on Capitol Hill are amateurs compared to Bill and Hillary Clinton. The Wall Street Journal explains that the charity they set up has basically been a scam to advance their personal and political interests.

The foundation served for years as a conduit for corporate and foreign cash to burnish the Clinton image, pay for their travel expenses for speeches and foreign trips, and employ their coterie in between campaigns or government gigs. Donors could give as much as they wanted because the foundation is a “charity.” …the foundation promised the White House when Mrs. Clinton became Secretary of State that the foundation would restrict foreign donations and get approval from the State Department. It turned out the foundation violated that pledge, specifically when accepting $500,000 from Algeria. The foundation also agreed to disclose donor names but failed to do so for more than 1,000 foreign donors until the failure was exposed by press reports.

Some readers may think it doesn’t matter where the money came from. What really counts is that the Clinton Foundation used the money to make the world a better place, right?

Um, not exactly. Only pennies on the dollar were used for charitable purposes.

The rest of the money was a slush fund to finance the Clinton family’s political machinery.

If you think this sounds unfair to the Clinton Foundation, you may change your mind after reading this article from the Daily Caller. Here are some excerpts.

Clinton Foundation officials have ignored virtually all of the “best practices” urged by good governance organizations for public charities… Most glaringly, for example, the foundation’s insular board of directors…are among President Bill and Hillary Clinton’s closest and richest friends. The “good governance” movement in the nonprofit field has been gathering strength for two decades, but it clearly has yet to reach the Clinton Foundation. …Good governance groups also encourage well-managed non-profits to create dedicated oversight committees… The Clinton Foundation has none of those committees, according to its Internal Revenue Service 990 tax filings. …the Clinton Foundation spent $12.6 million on Bill Clinton’s 60th birthday party. The foundation recorded the expense as “fundraising expenses.” …In December 2014 the board approved a $395,000 pay package for Braverman to become the new CEO.  But the next month he abruptly resigned. Politico reported that Clinton’s insular staff were appalled at Braverman’s attempts at reforms. Braverman never explained the reasons for his departure. But Politico believes it was a backlash from Bill and Hillary’s hardened loyalists and “mega-donors” who chafed at the notion of more openness and transparency.

If the Clinton Foundation was a truly private organization, it wouldn’t be anybody’s business whether how it operated.

Moreover, it would be hypocritical for me to make that accusation. After all, I’m on the Board of the pro-tax competition Center for Freedom and Prosperity and the other Board members are long-time friends. And we don’t have a bunch of oversight committees since CF&P’s annual budget has averaged less than $200,000, which means such things don’t seem necessary (though we’ve managed to do a lot with a little, even earning a front-page attack from the Washington Post).

The real issue, however, is whether a nonprofit organization is genuinely private. In the case of the Clinton Foundation, ” the organization seemingly operated as a “pay-to-play” gatekeeper for goodies from the State Department?

Consider these blurbs from a column in the Wall Street Journal.

…more than two dozen companies and groups and one foreign government paid former President Bill Clinton a total of more than $8 million to give speeches around the time they also had matters before Mrs. Clinton’s State Department, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis. Fifteen of them also donated a total of between $5 million and $15 million to the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation, the family’s charity… In several instances, State Department actions benefited those that paid Mr. Clinton.

Here’s one of the examples discussed in the column.

…the capital of the United Arab Emirates asked for a facility to clear travelers for U.S. entry before they boarded planes so they could avoid delays when arriving in the U.S. …U.S.-based airlines, which have no direct flights between Abu Dhabi and the U.S., opposed the idea as a giveaway to the government-owned airline, Etihad Airways. …While Mrs. Clinton’s State Department and the Department of Homeland Security were working out a “letter of intent” with Abu Dhabi for the facility, Mr. Clinton sought permission to give a paid speech in Abu Dhabi. …On Dec. 6, 2011, U.S. officials signed the letter of intent. One week later, Mr. Clinton gave a 20-minute talk on climate change to the Abu Dhabi government environmental gathering. He collected $500,000, his wife’s disclosure report shows. In December 2012, Mr. Clinton sought approval for another speech in Abu Dhabi before the World Travel and Tourism Council…the speech was sponsored by three Abu Dhabi tourism agencies, all owned by the government. …Mr. Clinton gave a keynote address on the value of tourism. He was paid $500,000, his wife’s disclosure filings say. One week later, the U.S. and Abu Dhabi signed the final agreement for the facility. …Mrs. Clinton’s spokesman said it was “farcical” to suggest any connection between the speeches and the facility’s opening.

The “farcical” part of this is the notion that a) Bill Clinton is an expert on the “value of tourism”, and b) that his supposed expertise on the topic is worth $500,000.

Though I have to give Bill Clinton credit for getting good deals. When I give a speech, I’m content with simply getting the organizer to pay for a coach ticket and a hotel room.

But the L.A. Times reveals that Bill Clinton gets much better treatment, not even counting the giant piles of money funneled to the Clinton Foundation.

Clinton changed the rules of political speech-making for cash. He would push not just corporate hosts but also nonprofits and universities to pay fees well beyond what they were accustomed to. …He and Hillary Clinton would become so skilled at churning profits out of their lectures that they would net more than $150 million from speaking alone after he left the White House. …refusing questions that were not screened by his staff in advance. There is the nearly $1,400 bill for a day’s worth of phone calls from San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel and the $700 dinner for two. …Clinton would demand in his contract to be shuttled by private jet from San Francisco to UC Davis, where he spoke at the Mondavi Center. The center had to appeal to its network of donors to find someone able to fly him the 70 miles, something it had never done and hasn’t since.

By the way, I don’t object to Bill Clinton being treated far better than me. But I do get agitated if he’s getting goodies because some interest group is participating in a pay-for-play scam based on favors from government.

And that does come out of my pocket, as well as from the pockets of every other taxpayer, consumer, and worker.

Speaking of pay-to-play, here’s a story from the Washington Examiner about some unseemly behavior from the Clinton Foundation.

A Clinton Foundation official asked an aide to then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton if the government would allow the well-connected charity to accept a donation from an oil company with extensive ties to Iran. …The email shows Petronas, a Malaysian state-owned oil company, wanted to send CEO Shamsul Azhar bin Abbas to a Clinton Global Initiative event as a paying member. …Two months earlier, the State Department highlighted a $150 million contract between Petronas and General Electric in Malaysia. …David Bossie, president of Citizens United, said the timeline of the State Department’s announcement of the deal with GE should raise questions. “A month after the announcement, the Clinton Foundation staff is contacting the State Department saying, ‘Hey, we want to shake down the CEO, essentially, of Petronus, is that ok?’…,” Bossie said. “That is political crony capitalism — that’s the definition of it, is using your political contacts and your political achievements for financial gain for the foundation,” he continued. “Clearly, [there was] a conflict of interest.”

The only good news is that the proposed shakedown of Petronas apparently didn’t happen, though it’s unclear from the records whether this was because the company said no or because the idea was so over-the-top corrupt that it was rejected by the State Department.

Let’s close with a really nauseating example of Clintonian sleaze. A story in National Review exposes how the family’s Foundation victimized the people of Haiti.

Their story goes back to 2010, when a massive 7.0 earthquake devastated the island, killing more than 200,000 people, leveling 100,000 homes, and leaving 1.5 million people destitute. The devastating effect of the earthquake on a very poor nation provoked worldwide concern and inspired an outpouring of…some $10.5 billion in aid, with $3.9 billion of it coming from the United States.

But all this money hasn’t helped the poor people of Haiti.

…very little of this aid money actually got to poor people in Haiti. …Port-au-Prince was supposed to be rebuilt; it was never rebuilt. Projects aimed at creating jobs proved to be bitter disappointments. Haitian unemployment remained high, largely undented by the funds that were supposed to pour into the country. Famine and illness continued to devastate the island nation.

Why didn’t all the money have a positive impact?

Part of the answer is that foreign aid generally ineffective. Another part of the answer is that Haiti has statist policies that inhibit growth and prosperity.

But a final part of the answer is that a bunch of grifters diverted the money to their own pockets.

Where did it go? …Bill Clinton was the designated UN representative for aid to Haiti. …his wife Hillary was the United States secretary of state. She was in charge of U.S. aid allocated to Haiti. …an interesting pattern involving the Clintons and the designation of how aid funds were used. …a number of companies that received contracts in Haiti happened to be entities that made large donations to the Clinton Foundation. …For example, the Clinton Foundation selected Clayton Homes, a construction company owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, to build temporary shelters in Haiti. Buffett is an active member of the Clinton Global Initiative who has donated generously to the Clintons as well as the Clinton Foundation. …the contract was never competitively bid for. Clayton offered to build “hurricane-proof trailers” but what they actually delivered turned out to be a disaster. The trailers were structurally unsafe, with high levels of formaldehyde and insulation coming out of the walls. There were problems with mold and fumes. The stifling heat inside made Haitians sick and many of them abandoned the trailers because they were ill-constructed and unusable.

Here’s another example of pay-to-play favoritism.

The Clintons also funneled $10 million in federal loans to a firm called InnoVida, headed by Clinton donor Claudio Osorio. …Normally the loan approval process takes months or even years. …InnoVida had not even provided an independently audited financial report that is normally a requirement for such applications. This requirement, however, was waived. On the basis of the Clinton connection, InnoVida’s application was fast-tracked and approved in two weeks. The company, however, defaulted on the loan and never built any houses. An investigation revealed that Osorio had diverted company funds to pay for his Miami Beach mansion, his Maserati, and his Colorado ski chalet.

Gee, isn’t government a great racket!

Here’s one final oleaginous example.

In 2011, the Clinton Foundation brokered a deal with Digicel, a cell-phone-service provider seeking to gain access to the Haitian market. The Clintons arranged to have Digicel receive millions in U.S. taxpayer money to provide mobile phones. The USAID Food for Peace program, which the State Department administered through Hillary aide Cheryl Mills, distributed Digicel phones free to Haitians. Digicel didn’t just make money off the U.S. taxpayer; it also made money off the Haitians. When Haitians used the phones, either to make calls or transfer money, they paid Digicel for the service. Haitians using Digicel’s phones also became automatically enrolled in Digicel’s mobile program. By 2012, Digicel had taken over three-quarters of the cell-phone market in Haiti. Digicel is owned by Denis O’Brien, a close friend of the Clintons. O’Brien secured three speaking engagements in his native Ireland that paid $200,000 apiece. These engagements occurred right at the time that Digicel was making its deal with the U.S. State Department. O’Brien has also donated lavishly to the Clinton Foundation, giving between $1 million and $5 million sometime in 2010–2011. Coincidentally the United States government paid Digicel $45 million to open a hotel in Port-au-Prince.

If you’re not thoroughly nauseated, read the entire article for many more examples of pay-to-play sleaze.

By the way, I’m not merely picking on the Clintons. Yes, they seem to be remarkably amoral in their approach to politics, but the underlying problem is that big government enables corruption regardless of who is in charge.

That’s the moral of the story.

P.S. Don’t forget that the Clinton Foundation easily got approved by the IRS while innocuous Tea Party groups were stonewalled. Another typical example of government in action.

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