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Class War For Idiots / Media Whores / January 17, 2012

This article is cross-posted from In These Times.

Earlier this week, I got into a little Twitter battle with Matthew Yglesias after the prominent blogger tweeted out “”EXCLUSIVE: The activities of individual business executives have no relationship to the level of economy-wide employment.”

That statement flies in the face of my own reporting showing that the decisions of individual CEOs to lay off workers and lower wages have a very real effect on economy-wide employment. If one CEO sees that he or she can crush a union and get away with lower wages, or force workers to be more productive by laying off other workers, other CEOs in the same industry will see it as a symbol that they can get away with that behavior themselves.

I typically don’t bother getting into fights with bloggers. But the hiring of wonky bloggers  likeYglesias—Slate hired him as its “business and economics correspondent“ last November—is a labor issue that not only affects the industry in which I work, but also the quality of journalism that is crucial to the lives of workers. Yglesias is a trend-setting blogger who The New York Times labeled as one of the “New Brat Pack,” whose ability to produce massive amounts of content could lead to the downsizing of news organizations through the elimination of traditional reporters who produce less content.

At a time when many seasoned reporters are being laid off by publications—like four veteran writers and editors who were laid off in August a few months before Yglesias was hired at Slate—mainstream news publications are turning to wonky bloggers like Ygelsias and fellow Brat Packer Ezra Klein (of The Washington Post) to turn out massive amounts of content and generate traffic. These bloggers can turn out 6-12 posts a day while traditional reporters, who take the time to go out in the field and interview people affected by the subject of their stories, can typically only turn out 3-4 stories a week. The result is that workers’ voices are often excluded in the rush to produce quick blog content.

For instance, take a piece Yglesias wrote this week about attacks on Mitt Romney and private equity firms. These firms often get rich by using companies like credit cards, pumping them up with debt before (sometimes) liquidating companies in bankruptcies and laying off workers, as I covered in the case of Armstrong World Industry lockout. (For more on how private equity firms saddle companies with debt and often lead to massive layoffs and wage cuts, see this excellent New York Times feature by Julie Creswell,  “Profits for Buyout Firms as Company Debt Soared” and the accompaning video titled “Flipped: How Private Equity Dealmakers Can Win While Their Companies Lose.

Yglesias wrote on Twitter about the piece, “Romney and Bain didn’t do anything wrong, but we still might not want an asshole in the White House.” He expands:

The art of the leveraged buyout and the private equity restructuring is, needless to say, different in many ways from the art of innovation. But they don’t differ in their destructive potential. And while layoffs and closures are devastating to families and households, restructuring troubled firms are often the best way to preserve jobs and shareholder value in the long run.

Yglesias does not provide any examples of how the so-called “destructive potential” of private equity firms leads to a company being successful over the long run. Unlike  Creswell, Ygelsias does not interview economic experts or workers with varying or opposing views of the effects of private equity firm-ordered layoffs.

While they work at mainstream media outlets, wonk bloggers like Yglesias and Klein aren’t held to the same standards as the reporters working for the same outlets. Yet many young Americans view them as trusted sources of where to get news.

Quite possibly the most unconvincing liberal-elite attempt at populism in the history of the Republic

Like Klein, Yglesias has written on a wide range of healthcare, economic and foreign issues, despite not having done in-depth field reporting on these topics. Their stories are often centered on the debates of the day between other journalists and policy elites, and they don’t talk to workers or the general public.

Take, for instance, one of Yglesias’ recent posts “Blame Ikea and H&M for Inequality,” where—again, without interviewing anyone, he writes about the success of Ikea and H&M, saying:

Under the circumstances, it’s obvious that the income gap between the CEO of H&M and the average Swedish worker is going to grow. But that doesn’t mean that the CEO’s income growth has come at the expense of middle class Swedes. On the contrary, it’s come at the expense of the owners and managers of rival retailers around the world….What’s true of H&M, of course, is also true of Ikea.

Apparently the growth of a company like H&M or Ikea could not have come through exploiting workers, a notion my In These Times colleague Josh Eidelson explored in a piece whose headline says it all: “Union Victory at Virginia IKEA Plant: Resistance Grows Against Race-to-Bottom Wages.”

Or take another post by Yglesias titled “Bus Drivers Should Be Paid What It Costs to Hire Competent Bus Drivers.” He writes, “It’s extremely difficult to have excellent public services if the debate is polarized between people who want to reduce spending in order to cut taxes, and people who want to view the bus system as a jobs program for bus drivers. When a city is having trouble attracting qualified applicants for bus driver jobs, that’s a sign that the wage is too damn low.”

Yglesias did not interview bus drivers about how much they make, like Daniel Massey of Crain’s New York Business did for a story about the upcoming contract negotiations for New York City transit workers. Instead he suggests that perhaps bus drivers’ wages should be lowered if qualified applicants can be paid to work at a lower wage.

The other “Iglesias”

Yglesias declined to comment on whether or not he would apply the same wage logic to his own salary. He also refused a more in-depth interview for this piece.

But his salary is relevant here, since traditional news publications are turning to bloggers like him to produce content. Bloggers with personalized brands and large Twitter followings (Yglesias has nearly 35,000 followers) are attractive to publications because they bring in a guaranteed audience. In addition, they are also cheaper to employ than traditional reporters, per the ratio of content they produce. Bloggers like Yglesias can turn out 6-12 blogs a day in some cases.

By constantly turning out content, these bloggers generate a lot of traffic. But it’s worth asking if the quality of their analysis is the same as professional journalism. This is not to say bloggers cannot provide valuable analysis. Yves Smith, who worked for nearly two decades in the finance industry has an excellent blog at Naked Capitalism, Marcy Wheeler, who worked for years in the auto industry, has an excellent blog at Emptywheel, and labor history professor Erik Loomis writes Lawyers, Guns and Money, a must-read blog on labor history and its applications for unions today. But these people, unlike Yglesias, have years of experience and are writing for their own sites, not mainstream news organizations.

I should note that I started off as a labor blogger who often wrote stories without interviewing workers or presenting contrasting opinions fairly. But under the mentorship of old-school reporters like The Nation’s William Greider, I realized this type of writing did a  deep disservice to workers. I began to realize that the more you learn as a journalist, the more you realize how much you do not know. Quite often, the best journalism presents all sides to complex questions and problems without trying to definitely answer those questions—such journalism lets people speak for themselves, and in doing so lets readers answer questions for themselves.

As mainstream news organizations keep hiring bloggers instead of reporters, and readers of my generation (I’m 25) increasingly turn to people like Yglesias to get news, it’s  important to ask if these news organizations are endangering journalism’s mission to serve the public interest by presenting a full range of voices affected by a story—in particular, the voices of workers. If we really want to understand the problems of today’s economy, shouldn’t we let workers speak for themselves?

Mike Elk is an In These Times Staff Writer and a regular contributor to the labor blog Working In These Times. He can be reached at mike at inthesetimes dot com.

 

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32 Comments

Add your own

  • 1. Miguel  |  January 17th, 2012 at 1:44 pm

    Why do these guys (Yglesias, Foust) all look the same?

  • 2. Doom  |  January 17th, 2012 at 3:57 pm

    Yglesias is the perfect example of the wannabe establishment liberal who bases all of his decisions on “will this get me closer to being a hack commentator on MSNBC?”

  • 3. Marcus McSpartacus  |  January 17th, 2012 at 5:30 pm

    Dammit – you beat me to it: is it an internet thing?

  • 4. pearl fiddler queen  |  January 17th, 2012 at 6:17 pm

    @1. materialism, honey, materialism.

  • 5. smalz  |  January 17th, 2012 at 6:49 pm

    Yglesias used to come into a bar I worked at in D.C. 5 or 6 years ago. He was a pompous little know-it-all douchebag–it looks like that hasn’t changed.

  • 6. ferd  |  January 17th, 2012 at 7:11 pm

    I’m a long time Yglesias reader, twice toe-licker, and can tell you that Matt meant the skull-shirt-with-guns pic to be funny. As in, wouldn’t it be funny for Woody Allen to try to look all badass wearing a skull-shirt and brandishing not one, but two!, shotguns.

  • 7. ferd  |  January 17th, 2012 at 7:24 pm

    I mean, look at Matty! He’s trying to compose a comedy shot, and he’s truly so Woody Allen nebbish, when it comes to firearms, that he doesn’t know that a badass-ready-to-fire pose requires him to grip the stock, and not the forestock, of the guns. Matt’s ready to badass CARRY the guns, not fire them.

  • 8. jonnym  |  January 17th, 2012 at 7:40 pm

    Yglesias and Foust look the same, yeah. Short-cropped hair, goatee, occasionally photographed in t-shirt, jeans & work boots. My guess is they copy what they think the working classes look like, so they’re more convincing when they pretend to speak for us.

    If you look at Ezra Klein & Glenn Greenwald, they look the same too — super preppy. I guess they can, because they aren’t pretending to speak for Joe Sixpack.

  • 9. Some Guy  |  January 17th, 2012 at 9:05 pm

    I agree with the gist of this article… that Matty Y and Ezra suck. And I agree with the underlying reasoning. However, I think their lack of expertise deserves equal emphasis with their lack of reporting.

    Ezra and Yglesias suck because they’re pseudo-wonk dilettantes, not because they’re not reporters.

    For instance, there can be value added in Ezra’s model of aggregating specific types of news stories with only a smattering of non-committal analysis. Calculated Risk is (in my opinion) an excellent blog that mostly repeats government and private reports of various economic indices with just a bit about why the numbers might be relevant. There’s not much reporting there (or really all that much analysis), but there’s value. Unlike Ezra, Calculated Risk has a strong grasp of what certain reports mean and what they may portend based on historical trends. Ezra tends to repeat mechanically Washington consensus, CBO scores or Joint Committee on Taxation analyses in a more readable format.

    As you suggest towards the end, for all of his self-professed wonkishness, Ezra lacks the expertise in any specific area to offer anything more than the most superficial analyses (analysis which is often just the received wisdom of the Washington cocktail party elite). To give him credit, it might be his lack of conviction, but Ezra is good enough at hedging his bets that he’s rarely inarguably, embarrassingly, soul-crushingly wrong. He’s careful to put controversial claims in the mouths of others and adding his own hemming and hawing noises when it comes to his own opinions.

    Yglesias is less shy about being blindingly mis- or under-informed. In the specific case of private equity, it’s clear that Yglesias has some passing familiarity with the creative destruction account of private equity’s effect on jobs. However, for all of his “wonkishness,” Yglesias doesn’t seem to have cited any of the academic literature on the economics of private equity. Compare his several posts about the effects of private equity (rendered with smug certitude) to Dean Baker’s recent post on the same subject. Dean Baker emphasizes that the effect of private equity on employment isn’t a settled issue for those in the economics profession. Yglesias isn’t as timid as Ezra, nor does he appear to be well-versed enough in the literature or data to know that a point he may be making is arguable or sometimes even wrong.

    Non-expert renaissance bloggers like Matty Y, Tim Noah, Feix Salmon, and Kevin Drum all show that knowing more about a subject than 99+% of the population isn’t always sufficient. (cf. Noah’s recent wrongheaded posts on the constitutionality of Obama’s recess appointments; Felix Salmon’s occasional utterly stupid blog posts; anything any of these jokers says about education.)

    Anyway, long story short, I think it’s the lack of expertise that makes them mostly useless as bloggers. If they could be decent reporters, that’s one way of mitigating the problem. Otherwise, they could build up a body of knowledge about a specific discipline or policy concern, the way that guys like DeLong, Krugman, Bob Somerby, Bruce Webb, Dean Baker, Steven Randy Waldman, Menzie Chinn and others have done. As it stands, they’re probably content to cash relatively fat paychecks while advocating for a switch to chained-CPI for Social Security benefits and an utter dismantling of teachers’ unions.

  • 10. BigRed  |  January 18th, 2012 at 12:11 am

    Especially the beginning of your post resonated strongly with quite a few things at Bill Mitchell’s blog (http://bilbo.economicoutlook.net/blog/) – another blogger who actually knows what he blogs about and can shed some light on how we got where we are and what is needed to change course.

    Specifically, depressing salaries and/or firing workers in the most straight-forward sense depresses demands…how are people without money supposed to buy any goods in the first place. So yes, the activities of individual CEOs have far-reaching effects, even more so if they’re being flanked by a political class that transfers even more money from have-nots to haves by cutting taxes in the top bracket, reducing unemployment benefits and cutting government spending, leading to more unemployment and low salaries.

    I find the demasking of Klein and Yglesias going here very valuable – please keep at it.

  • 11. GG Allin  |  January 18th, 2012 at 12:40 am

    @9. great post, man. i’m in full agreement.

  • 12. bleb  |  January 18th, 2012 at 5:17 am

    I cancelled my subscription to The Nation when they featured him in a special on inequality in America.
    He wrote this: The cause is the enormous improvement in living standards of the people in China, India, Brazil and other large developing nations. On the moral balance sheet, this betterment of some of the globe’s poorest people more than outweighs the continued stagnation of middle-class wages in the United States.

    No supporting facts or anything– just the assertion that there is “enormous improvement in living standards” which “more than outweighs” fucked America.

  • 13. Fissile  |  January 18th, 2012 at 6:05 am

    Back in the day, before I got a dose of Republican “values”….got it good and hard…I belonged to a gun club. This is what the majority of NRA/Tea-Party types look like: Moobs. Ass wider than shoulders. Tough-guy affectations…although most have probably never been in a fist fight in all their lives.

  • 14. Trevor  |  January 18th, 2012 at 6:18 am

    Nothing says “insecure wimp” like posing with guns!

  • 15. E  |  January 18th, 2012 at 7:30 am

    Foust and Yngviemalmsteenus look the same because there might be genetics at work:

    http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/the-barefaced-truth-about-big-fat-liars-2307552.html

    When you read about other disorders and birth defects, the kind that are usually named after someone (AKA Down’s Syndrome), there is a list of physical characteristics, behaviors, and other symptoms that go with making a diagnosis.

    Maybe “Fat Faced Liar” syndrome can be given the name of someone who suffers from it (or makes others suffer from it …Ted Bundy did not suffer from being a Psychopath he made others suffer) like Yg-Foust Syndrome or something.

    Urge to cultivate bizarre facial hair in Yg-Foust might be comparable to “Compulsive Eating” in Prader Willi Syndrome.

  • 16. Internationalist  |  January 18th, 2012 at 7:37 am

    @9: No. The expertise wielded by Perfessers and Geniuses Laureate like DeLong or Krugman is highly suspect. These economists embody the “acceptably leftist” position in an academic environment that is deeply corrupt. Even when they’re arguing for the “good side”, their reasoning is seven parts dogma, two parts fad and one part evidence. This becomes particularly clear in the case of less erudite writers like Krugman’s mini-me Baker, whose penchant for “apriorisms” reminds me of fucking Von Mises at times. They pontificate at length about broad swathes of the planet without the requisite language skills and hands-on experience.

    Even Krugman, well versed as he is in the ways of the concern troll, has admitted the economics discipline is in its “Dark Ages”. This article by James K. Galbraith, full of overt swipes at Krugman, dwells on how right he is.

    http://www.nea.org/assets/docs/HE/TA09EconomistGalbraith.pdf

  • 17. Jay  |  January 18th, 2012 at 7:54 am

    Yglesias is a writer without curiousity. As a result, he wants to be a writer, which is totally different from having something he wants to write. He weighs in on whatever passes his desk and considers his job done.

    I’ve tried to read his book. I don’t recommend the experience.

  • 18. wengler  |  January 18th, 2012 at 11:09 am

    I keep wondering why people consider Yglesias progressive at all. He writes in the style not uncommon as the snots at The Economist or Reason. It’s very much along the line of “Look children, I found how it’s better than you don’t have a union and Chinese slaves are happy to work for 31 cents an hour! Poor people in America still have color TVs!”

  • 19. American Woman Are Fat  |  January 18th, 2012 at 11:23 am

    If economics can be based on theory instead of facts, then why not journalism, er, blogging?

    Assessing facts, never mind gathering them, makes most peoples’ heads hurt. Americans are especially lazy, and would rather have their opinions pureed. Corporate America knows this well.

  • 20. Some Guy  |  January 18th, 2012 at 11:45 am

    at #16:

    You don’t have to agree with all of the economists and bloggers that I cited to see that their work is different from the pseudo-liberal pseudo-wonks’. I disagree with many of them. And I agree with you that the academy does have a corrupting influence.

    Still, the distinction I’m drawing is between those bloggers as knowledgeable professionals or well-learned amateurs and pseudo-wonk dilettantes like Yg and Ezra.

    Like Galbraith–and unlike Ezra–DeLong and Krugman have reasons for their assertions. One could argue that their focus is misplaced. One can even argue that they’ve been corrupted by an academy (as well as a political marketplace) that pushes them towards cetrist positions. Still, that doesn’t make what they’re saying indefensible. I guess my point is that whether they’re corrupt pseudo-liberals is less relevant than the evidence they provide. As you suggest, corrupt pseudo-liberals aren’t always wrong. When they are wrong (or right for the wrong reasons), how they’re wrong is more important than their motivations.

    As for Baker, he may be a crackpot about some stuff and he’s not the best writer, but he’s pretty good on Social Security since he actually knows how the system works. Even a passing familiarity with Social Security is extremely rare for a blogger.

    Most importantly, Krugman, Baker, and DeLong are not parroting the positions of some DC pseudo-liberal they met at a bar.

  • 21. Internationalist  |  January 18th, 2012 at 2:03 pm

    Well, if that’s what you’re trying to say it’s hard to disagree. DeLong is smarter and more knowledgeable than Klein, and that distinction’s not entirely without importance. OK. At the same time, fat lot of good it is doing, no?

    The court astrologer is a man of greater learning than the vapid courtier, but at the end of the day, it’s all life at the court.

  • 22. bob  |  January 18th, 2012 at 4:25 pm

    The PE industry and the whores that follow are full of shit.

    They lever them up using syndicated loans from one of the TBTF, then suck, long and hard.

    Who bought Chrysler? I mean, who REALLY bought Chrysler from Daimler? Cerberus was the name, but the banks were the money.

    The only “inefficiency” in a lot of the victims is that they failed to include massive amounts of debt.

    Very inefficient for WS, they can make carry on loans, they can’t do much with a well capitalized company.

  • 23. bob  |  January 18th, 2012 at 4:29 pm

    Ezra wouldn’t know wonk if it was skull fucking him. It often does.

  • 24. Dimitri Ratz  |  January 18th, 2012 at 10:34 pm

    Micro-managing yields terrible results, because it’s unproductive and creates artificial barriers. Seeing it first hand at work is more telling than quoting car production for some year in the 60s when Western Europe made 4.6 million vs. just 60 thousand in USSR, because you can naturally account for differences without accounting for public transportation, and other important details when dealing with statistical data. For example the middle class in Russia is just at 20% today! Sure in 1998 the middle class was at 5%, but it doesn’t change the fact that in 14 years over 80% of population that was poor is still, well dirt poor. Putin2012.ru doesn’t deny, but affirms these numbers… Minimum wage in itself as part of a contract can provide important guaranties to the employee, and citizens at different levels of city, county being involved in the process is vital in a democracy to protect all of it’s members’ interests. The threat, or the perceived threat is that states or federal union will set the minimum wage to high leading to rationing whatever jobs are left out there and directly leading to crimes and abuses in their distribution as the supply of workers is disbalanced from the positions left.

    However, that is not the case under current conditions. Minimum wage debate on broad scale, as well as many laws on the books at work that have zero tolerance on speech deemed “reasonably” offensive or now protected characteristics with even “unreasonably” offensive zero tolerance for sole reason of association are keeping the working middle class in the States fighting among itself with these broad laws if not shutting some out completely.

    There should be laws on the books as necessary oversight for workers, but after sitting through the online California Law AB 1825 Mandatory class I couldn’t help recalling a history class from years back where late nineteenth Century was covered, more specificly where executives sowed discord between the Irish and some other group to break up their united bargining stand.

    History has shown asset owning on individual scale as working since dawn of man, but it also showed clear examples where it went horribly wrong. The polarization of debate is not accidental if we look to the recent 100 year history to learn and reflect on the present.

    But as the Irish bar fight continues (not implying there is a propensity for Irish to fight in bars, or soccer events, but in the historical 19th century labor reference that carries over into the present) executive bodies are paying themselves extravagant amounts as a percentage of total profit and in some cases revenue as no profit is left to the shareholders who in such large multi-billion corporations are to numerous to field their own directors to stop the bare boning of “national champions” and the regulator positions have been filled while the meat is still warm stuck between their teeth (GoldmenSachs overly cited example, but it’s everywhere), and Corporate Welfare/Bailout made sure that those large companies continue to remain too large to have sufficient shareholder oversight to rain in this bare theft in the companies were they liquidated and sold off in smaller, but at least manageable and answerable to the shareholders. In the past the middle class was respected as a minority shareholder in companies and if it was not directly involved as individual, then pension investments.. This is destroying the system as a whole on the national scale for the benefit of the Oligarchy, irrespective of all three classes, including the rich.

  • 25. HueyLewis  |  January 19th, 2012 at 10:24 am

    You guys spend much more time than necessary on these feuds with bush league Neocon “journalists” most of us hadn’t heard of before you splashed their pasty virginal mugs under the banner.

    Please, more coverage of the ongoing collapse. It’s not like there’s a shortage of stories out there…

  • 26. askod  |  January 19th, 2012 at 12:20 pm

    Good article, good comments.

    I’d like to add that surely the trend towards papers hiring opinionated people without knowledge is far older then the blogosphere. Columnists, writers of editorials, and such commenters delivers emotional, not factual content. Hiring emotional bloggers might accentuate this trend but not much more, its all part of the decline of western journalism.

  • 27. Moe  |  January 20th, 2012 at 7:36 pm

    JUST A ROUTINE PLEA FOR THE ALMIGHTY EXILED CENSOR TO FUCKING CALL ITS GIRLFRIEND ALREADY, THANKS.

  • 28. derp  |  January 23rd, 2012 at 1:43 pm

    Hey, Mike Elk, your article was an interesting read. One point (or question or whatever) though:

    It seems to me that in the section regarding Yglesias’ reporting on the busdriver issue, your analysis of Iglesias’ point might be mistaken. The last line of your quote from him reads, “When a city is having trouble attracting qualified applicants for bus driver jobs, that’s a sign that the wage is too damn low.”

    In the next paragraph, you write “Instead he suggests that perhaps bus drivers’ wages should be lowered if qualified applicants can be paid to work at a lower wage.”

    It is hard to read the Yglesias excerpt and reason that that is what he meant by it.

    Overall, though, fuck him

  • 29. derp  |  January 23rd, 2012 at 1:46 pm

    Hey, Mike Elk, your article was an interesting read. One point (or question or whatever) though:

    It seems to me that in the section regarding Yglesias’ reporting on the busdriver issue, your analysis of Iglesias’ point might be mistaken. The last line of your quote from him reads, “When a city is having trouble attracting qualified applicants for bus driver jobs, that’s a sign that the wage is too damn low.”

    In the next paragraph, you write “Instead he suggests that perhaps bus drivers’ wages should be lowered if qualified applicants can be paid to work at a lower wage.”

    It is hard to read the Yglesias excerpt and reason that that is what he meant by it.

    Overall, though, fuck him…..and his peers

  • 30. Dan  |  January 30th, 2012 at 3:41 pm

    This doesn’t seem complicated…..Yglesias is a columnist, not a reporter. He doesn’t interview workers, because that’s not the point of his pieces. I would guess he doesn’t get “into the field” as much as your usual reporter, however, I would guess he reads more material about his subjects of interest than your average reporter.

    I don’t know, I like this site sometimes, but more often than not it just seems like pissed off people trying to act like something or someone as irrelevant as Yglesias is actually why they’re mad, and will miss any point necessary to make their own.

  • 31. Brooks  |  January 31st, 2012 at 7:04 pm

    Do you know how much Yglesias is worth/ salary?

  • 32. exploitedtimes  |  February 10th, 2012 at 8:59 pm

    Thanks Elk.

    The notion that the mission of journalism is to serve the public is admirable and romantic and I personally applaud it. But while Mike and Mark and rest of crew here may serve for the sake of service and the romance of the truth, the professional mission of journalism and journalists has probably always been a lot more about greed and ego than the truth. So that’s a good reason to appreciate martyrs (with respect) like Mike Elk and the others out there who get it for the sake of getting it. There seems to be fewer every day and we simply can’t expect the truth from anybody or organization claiming to be producing ‘journalism.’ Whether it’s a flash blogger or institutional hack, integrity has always been in short supply and it usually pays more to bury the truth than expose it.


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