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Western Governments and Global Labor Standards

[ 15 ] July 29, 2015 |

Rana Plaza building in Dhaka.

Robert Ross has an excellent article on Bangladeshi labor reforms two years after Rana Plaza. In short, the international outrage has led to some relatively minor but not meaningless changes to building safety and union voices on the job. But very little to none of the money corporations have given to compensate the survivors have made it to the workers, employer resistance is still massive and that includes firing unionists, 10 percent of the Bangladeshi parliament is made up of apparel factory owners, and while the European companies Accord on Fire and Building Safety has helped workers, the American companies’ toothless version has done nothing but protect Walmart and Gap from responsibility for workers’ rights. Ultimately, Ross sees two key points out of this that I discuss in Out of Sight. First, that western governments have the power to make a difference in Bangladesh:

If labor rights and protective government policy (unions, laws, and law enforcement) form the main crucible of decent conditions for workers, alliances with international NGOs and labor unions are the enablers. Policy levers also exist—but Western governments have to be willing to use them. For example, the EU has what is called a Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) written into its trade laws. (The U.S.’s GSP provisions expired in 2013, but are likely to be reauthorized.) These allow duty-free entry of certain goods from low-income nations into the economies of their higher-income trading partners. They are bilateral terms, conditioned, ostensibly, on trade partners observing internationally recognized labor rights.

For example, after the Rana Plaza collapse, the U.S. suspended Bangladesh’s GSP privileges because of its fundamental disrespect for labor rights. But apparel imports are excluded from the GSP. This past year, through April 2015, Bangladesh apparel exports to the U.S. were valued at $4.95 billion. In 2012, Bangladesh imports covered by the GSP provisions were worth $34.7 million. The GSP suspension was symbolic.

However, apparel imports to the multination EU are covered by a single GSP provision. In 2014, they were worth almost $14 billion. At the Second Anniversary Forum sponsored by the ILO at a swank downtown Dhaka hotel, the EU representative to Bangladesh made a clear threat to suspend GSP privileges unless Bangladesh followed through on commitments to protect worker safety and guarantee core labor rights, a duplication in intent of an ILO forum in Brussels two days before. This is a target for European campaigners, particularly the Amsterdam-based Clean Clothes Campaign. Whether they are willing to use the threat—which is dire—remains to be seen.

There are other levers for U.S. allies. The federal government is a large buyer of garments, including the post exchange (PX) retail stores where armed forces families buy goods on military bases around the world. They could be required to buy only from Accord members when they source from Bangladesh. They now report on whether they are using Accord factories, and the Marine Corps requires licensees using their logos to source from Accord firms or from factories that meet its requirements.

Yet for the most part, the American government refuses to do anything. That includes congressional Republicans getting angry at the military for not sourcing their clothing cheaply enough. It has certainly not been a priority for Obama, as the Trans-Pacific Partnership demonstrates. Global labor rights needs to be a political issue in this country for this system to meaningfully change. But this gets to Ross’ other point–that conditions for American workers are also getting worse:

American workers don’t face conditions as grim as those in Bangladesh, but some are not so different. As American workers lose union protection because of hostile laws, courts, and media, so do they lose their ability to defend safe conditions. At Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia in 2010, 29 miners died: non-union. In the 1991 Hamlet, North Carolina, poultry plant fire where 25 died and the back doors were locked: non-union. On paper, American workers have all the rights they need to organize and join unions. In practice, they risk getting fired.

In Bangladesh, one of the gaps is a decade-long, as yet unsuccessful, attempt to create a workers’ compensation insurance system. Workers’ comp offers a no-fault system—a grand bargain created a century ago, state by state, in the U.S.: Workers don’t sue; employers pay insurance premiums to cover medical costs and long-term income replacement for disability. Oops: Workers’ comp is under attack in the U.S. in state after state, as caps on payments, limits on payment duration, and other restrictions erode yet another part of the social safety net. We learn about what we need by examining the deficits of others.

Right, and with the destruction of unions and a century of labor law the stated goal of Republicans today, the future of the already heavily eroded standards of American work are very much in doubt. Outsourcing and the global race to the bottom incentivizes American companies to launch attacks on American worker rights while at the same time moving production around the globe to ensure a global Gilded Age of extreme income inequality and severe worker suffering. That can’t get better if workers can’t form their own unions and the companies stick around long enough to deal with those unions. What Ross does not state is the globalized nature of apparel production and the very real fear among Bangladeshi worker activists that the companies could move once again at any time if they feel too much pressure to pay good wages or have safe workplaces in Bangladesh. Only by creating international labor standards enforceable in U.S. courts that follow American companies no matter where they source their items will we begin to create a legal regime that gives workers a fair shake, both at home and abroad.

Speaking of such things, this is as good a place as any to remind our New York readers that I will be speaking with the labor journalist Sarah Jaffe at Local 61 in Brooklyn tonight at 7. There will be copies of Out of Sight available for purchase and I will be happy to sign yours. Also, CSPAN is filming it for BookTV and whenever it actually comes on, I’ll let everyone know.


Slave Labor in Fishing

[ 19 ] July 27, 2015 |


I’ve talked about this several times before and I discuss it in Out of Sight, but slave labor in the southeast Asian fisheries is endemic and basically no one cares. This is an outstanding report on that slave labor. Almost all of the fish in the southeast Asian seas goes to the United States in Europe–for pet food, for farm animal feed, for fish farming, and sometimes directly onto U.S. plates. It’s totally unsustainable from an environmental angle and the long-term overfishing of these waters makes the future of much of the U.S. meat supply in serious question, but that’s a secondary question to the sheer brutality these laborers face, which you can read about in great and disturbing detail at the link. It simply isn’t a priority of the federal government and certainly not of the American companies buying from these sources to make sure the fish are harvested within a basic framework of human rights for the laborers. And in fact, there are no human rights on these boats.

This is why we need real international frameworks that place the burden of proof on the American companies buying this stuff. How does this end? That’s a complex question, but American companies canceling contracts with the suppliers who buy from these boats is a necessary step. That will only happen if we make those American companies legally liable for these conditions. Simply put, the global supply chain exists in no small part to separate big western companies from any responsibility for global labor conditions. They don’t want to know and mostly they don’t have to know. That’s not acceptable. We can publish all the articles we want about these labor conditions on the boats and we can feel bad for those workers. But when you start looking at what to do, only by demanding that we hold western companies legally accountable for the conditions can we the consumer make a difference. Otherwise, we aren’t doing anything useful at all and that’s not OK either.

In other words, when you feel Fido or Fluffy today, think a little bit about where their pet food comes from and consider how you can ensure that their food isn’t produced on the backs of slaves.

Confederate Monuments: Memorials to State-Sponsored Terrorism

[ 84 ] July 27, 2015 |

Brent Staples makes good points about what Confederate statuary is really about, especially when we are talking about people like Nathan Bedford Forrest.

Not all monuments warrant that kind of challenge. But those honoring the Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest deserve the backlash they have generated. Forrest presided over the 1864 massacre of Union soldiers, many of them black, at Fort Pillow in Tennessee. He was also a prominent slave trader and served as the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

Apologists argue that his involvement with the Klan was unimportant because he later adopted more enlightened views. But as the Forrest biographer Jack Hurst writes, by lending his name to the K.K.K. even temporarily, the general accelerated its development. “As the Klan’s first national leader,” Mr. Hurst writes, “he became the Lost Cause’s avenging angel, galvanizing a loose collection of boyish secret social clubs into a reactionary instrument of terror still feared today.”

Protests erupted in Selma, Ala., in 2000 when a bust of Forrest was unveiled on the grounds of a museum. (One critic likened it to erecting a statue of Hitler in a Jewish neighborhood.) The sculpture was subsequently moved to a cemetery.

Wait, Selma unveiled a monument to Forrest in 2000? Wow.

What should we do with such monuments? Some should clearly be taken down. I’m not 100% supportive of erasing the racist history of the past from the public spaces it occupies. It’s possible to interpret it as sites of racism. But really, who is going to do that? Does Memphis have the capability and money for the long-term interpretation of its infamous Forrest statue? Probably not. And we are not bound by our ancestors choices in who to memorialize. Just because a statue was erected in 1895 does not mean need to leave it up in 2015. If the statue was to an open racist, KKK founder, and commander during the Fort Pillow Massacre like Forrest, I don’t see any good reason to keep that statue up. That’s what belongs in a museum, with plenty of interpretation as to why it was seen as desirable to put that statue up and what that said about white supremacy and black rights in the post-Reconstruction South.

Some will claim that these fights over the Civil War are meaningless and don’t solve racism. First, no one claimed they would solve racism, a fight that can be fought but not won. Second, if you don’t think the past matters, talk to Lynne Cheney. Talk to the people fighting the AP US History standards for being too liberal (typically the AP response was to make this year’s DBQ about the rise of conservatism, which according to my grader friends, was all set up to make students write about how government doesn’t work). Ask the Texans seeking to eliminate all discussion of civil rights from the state’s history textbooks. Ask Bree Newsome. Ask the victims of Dylann Roof. The past matters a lot, and especially the Civil War past. These symbols are almost as much about the present as the past and symbols are incredibly important. We are turning a corner in the popular understanding of the Civil War as being about slavery and racism and eliminating statues honoring people like Forrest are an important part of that, especially since that’s where the energy and momentum is right now. And as I’ve said before about many movements, no one can control where the energy is at a given time and it needs to be built upon with concrete gains before it dissipates.

Similarly, we aren’t beholden to what our ancestors decided to name sites in this nation, north or south. Does Minnesota need a Lake Calhoun? I think not. Does Michigan need a Calhoun County? No. Why not rename it? Might I suggest Harrington County, after former Duck and Lions legend Joey Harrington? That’s sure to gain support throughout the Mitten.

Speaking of such things, yesterday I visited one of my favorite spots in this great nation: where the traitorous slaveholder Stonewall Jackson was shot and mortally wounded at the Battle of Chancellorsville.


Terrible battle for the Union, but good times. I wanted to run out to where Longstreet was shot in the neck by his own troops at the Wilderness, but I ran out of time. Next trip to Virginia I guess.


[ 201 ] July 25, 2015 |

We can learn lessons from the mass murders that are a monthly event in this nation. We learned, as a nation, from Dylann Roof, that the Confederate flag is a symbol of horrible evil that inspires racist violence. It has since come down at the South Carolina statehouse. That’s pretty amazing. There’s plenty of lessons to learn as well from the Hitler-loving, liberal-hating man who shot up a theater in Lafayette, Louisiana this week. He should not have been able to legally buy a gun. Yet the laws are so lax that he easily avoided any restrictions. Even if you love guns, there’s no good reason to support a regime that allows anyone to buy them, no matter their history of hatred, violence, and mental disturbance. Gun restrictions on people like that is just common sense. Unfortunately, thanks in no small part to the scumbag facilitator of mass murder and terrorism named Wayne LaPierre, as well as craven politicians like Bobby Jindal who made sure anyone could buy just about any gun in Louisiana, there’s no way the nation will learn similar lessons here. And thus the mass murders and right-wing terrorism will continue.

Book Review: Greg Grandin, The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World

[ 10 ] July 25, 2015 |


We are living in a renaissance of historical writing. There’s always been a good market for popularly written histories, but that market consisted of books on presidents and wars written for a white, male, conservative reading audience. That’s not going away of course. But what has developed in the 21st century is an alternative market of big narrative books by academic historians written for a left-leaning market that take seriously both the insights of the historical profession over the past thirty years and the disturbing history of the American and global past. There’s a few reasons for this. First, historians have moved beyond the social history of the 70s with its demography and number crunching and tightly wound detail that added a tremendous amount to our historical knowledge but didn’t lend itself to a wide readership. Meanwhile, U.S. historians at least largely existed on the edge of the postmodern turn, making it relatively easy for the field to at accept writing for a broader audience (even if most historians don’t have the writing skills). But there’s also a greater popular audience for good histories and a necessary dissemination method for publicity. That’s the internet, where not only might a professor be on Twitter and write for websites, but where a community might spread around important ideas and let a general audience know what books they should read. The democratic nature of that medium–which is less democratic than it once was but still–allows for books to attract reviews and historians to have opportunities that simply wouldn’t have existed when the New York Times Book Review and The New Republic were among the only outlets to disseminate this material. Among those historians who have both benefited from the internet is myself, both in attracting a publisher and in having a market to move copies of a book that brings the past to bear on the present in ways intended to inspire activism.

This makes it an exciting time to be a historian and a reader (and both, in my case). We see straight academic histories like the recent books on slavery and capitalism by Sven Beckert and Ed Baptist take off and have real audiences that have gone far to provide context on the left for already shifting notions about slavery. Eric Foner is basically a national treasure, with his free MOOC a valued history to many. Jill Lepore is a publishing beast, pushing out both a respected book a year and excellent New Yorker essays. There’s historians like Ari Kelman who is telling familiar stories in new ways and people like Kevin Kruse writing books to address the issues that drive progressive politics today.

Of course what these historians all have in common is that they are U.S. historians. What about a Latin Americanist? Can they tap into this new market? That’s the space Greg Grandin has increasingly tried to fill. Long a respected scholar and passionate political writer, Grandin has in his last two books reached out to tell stories that are partially North American within a Latin American context. His last book, Fordlandia, was the story of Henry Ford’s ill-fated attempt to build a rubber plantation and company town reflecting his, shall we say, unique values in Brazil. It received a lot of acclaim. He has followed that with The Empire of Necessity , exploring the slave rebellion aboard the ship Tyral in 1805 and the rescue of the Spanish captain Benito Cerreño by an American captain named Amasa Delano (ancestor of FDR). Yes, this is the same incident that inspired Herman Melville to write his brilliant short novel Benito Cereno.

Winner of the 2015 Bancroft Prize, The Empire of Necessity succeeds in bringing a complex set of stories around slavery, geography, sealing, Latin American independence movements, shipping, the economics of the global shipping industry, African resistance, and much more. Yet while none of these things might immediately suggest to the lay reader a book they must pick up (outside perhaps of the Melville connection), the book succeeds spectacularly. This is the sort of well-written history that hides none of the horrors of the past yet is brilliantly written that people have long wished they could read. And now they can.

Grandin tells the story of slaves taken from Africa, brought to Montevideo after the original slave ship was taken over by a pirate, and then some eventually marched over the Andes into modern Chile. That experience alone, dealing with unbelievable elevation, is something that is central to the experiences of so many of the characters in this book. In Chile, they were placed on yet another ship to go to Peru. They revolted, killing several crew members and attempting to force Cerreño to take them back to Africa. Typically he lied to them and steered his way into the open water off the Chilean coast. Meanwhile, Delano, a sealer trying to be economically independent in a rapidly changing U.S. economy, has taken to sealing, killing thousands of the creatures and then sailing for Asia to sell the skins. An abolitionist, Delano ran into Cerreño’s ship. The self-emancipated slaves played it cool but at the last second, Cerreño jumps into Delano’s boat. Delano’s men then attack the Africans, the owner’s abolitionism instantly irrelevant, and the survivors are either executed or sold. Delano, desperate and in debt because he and others had hunted the south Pacific seals to tiny remnant populations, tried to take Cerreño’s limited profits in return for saving him from likely death, but ultimately he received a relatively small amount from Spanish courts. He died mostly broke while Cerreño settled in Lima to eventually flee the slave rebellions that were part of the Latin American wars for independence in the 1810s.

One of the book’s key points is the connection between white republicanism and chattel slavery. We know the U.S. side of this–southern slaveholders created a white male republicanism based upon the ownership of African people, which expanded rapidly after the invention of the cotton gin. But this was also true in South America, where trade liberalization in the late 18th century meant the trade in Africans and where anti-Spanish colonial agitation often revolved around wanting more trade in African slaves. Like in the U.S., the Age of Liberty was built upon the Age of Slavery. Grandin certainly doesn’t skimp on the brutality, including in the slave trade. The description of the seal trade leaves far too little to the imagination. And those seal knives intended to separate skin from muscle? Well, let’s just say they can be used on rebellious slaves as well.

I recognize that this review is more a thought piece about the nature of historical writing in the present than an in depth discussion of Grandin’s points. This post is long enough and there’s a lot of contours of the book I haven’t discussed at all. But it’s a very good book and you should read it. It’s one of the jewels of this golden age of left-leaning historical writing. Read and learn.

The Southern Capitalist Economy, Then and Now

[ 32 ] July 24, 2015 |


Slaves, Montgomery, Alabama, 1861

Harold Meyerson overstates his argument on the Southern economy as the point of low-wage capitalist production both before the Civil War and today, but he makes a lot of good points and it’s well worth your time. Basically, Meyerson uses the new historical literature on the connections between northern capitalists and southern plantation owners to draw comparisons to the recent growth of low-wage industrialization in the anti-union South. There has been some return of heavy industry to the South in low-wage, non-union states that provide workers few opportunities for economic advancement and are constricted by state governments that are firmly in the pocket of the companies. And that has, as Meyerson states, created two nations in one, as during the mid-19th century, as northern and western liberal states increasingly pass worker-friendly legislation while southern and Midwestern states pass anti-worker legislation.

Meyerson also notes the expansion of southern style governance north in the present, although he significantly underestimates how prominent this was in the pre-Civil War North, as the Democratic Party was a white supremacist party no matter where it ruled. The point about two nations in one is something I’d observed. I will note that the comparison between slavery in 1860 and non-union auto factory work in 2015 is stretching it pretty far; after all, there is still plenty of truly brutal work happening around the world, often in conditions of slave labor. But there’s no question that in a world of globalized capital, low-wage American production can make sense in some industry and unless the U.S. government steps up with pro-labor measures, politicians in the pockets of corporations will bend over backwards to create states that serve those companies as much as possible.

What Punishment Should CEO’s Receive for Egregious Violations of Safety Standards?

[ 88 ] July 24, 2015 |


Is life in prison too harsh a punishment for this guy?

Federal court officers have recommended a sentence of life in prison for a peanut company executive convicted of selling salmonella-tainted food, a move that attorneys on both sides called “unprecedented” for a food-poisoning case.

The potential life sentence for former Peanut Corporation of America owner Stewart Parnell was disclosed by prosecutors in a court filing Wednesday.

Parnell, 61, is scheduled to be sentenced Sept. 21 by a federal judge in Albany, Georgia. Prosecutors filed a legal brief Wednesday in U.S. District Court revealing that the U.S. Probation Office, which prepares pre-sentencing reports to help guide federal judges, concluded the scope of Parnell’s crimes “results in a life sentence Guidelines range.”

Parnell and his co-defendants were never charged with sickening or killing anybody. Instead prosecutors used the seven-week trial to lay out a paper trail of emails, lab results and billing records to show Parnell’s company defrauded customers by using falsified test results to cover up lab screenings that showed batches of peanut butter contained salmonella. The tainted goods were shipped to Kellogg’s and other food processors for use in products from snack crackers to pet food.

Prosecutors wrote that court officers “correctly calculated” Parnell’s recommended sentence, but stopped short of saying whether they plan to ask the judge to impose a life sentence. A spokeswoman for the Justice Department in Washington, Nicole Navas, declined to comment.

Prosecutors’ legal brief also noted stiff sentences were recommended for Parnell’s two co-defendants. Punishment of 17 to 21 years in prison was recommended for Parnell’s brother, food broker Michael Parnell, who was convicted on fewer counts. The recommendation for Mary Wilkerson, the Georgia plant’s quality control manager, was eight to 10 years. She was convicted of obstruction of justice.

According to the CDC, deaths linked to the outbreak were reported in Idaho, Minnesota, North Carolina and Virginia.

Both sides are calling this unprecedented, and it is. But then if your actions lead to the death of someone in most circumstances, you can be held liable and forced to serve a lot of time. If your culpability goes to the point of defrauding customers to avoid safety and that then kills people in four states, that’s pretty bad.

I will note that there’s no way that the public outrage over companies killing customers is likely a lot more intense than the same CEO killing workers through unsafe work practices. But then threats to consumer health has long drawn more outrage than threats to worker health.

Republican Environmental Planning

[ 16 ] July 24, 2015 |

Neighborhood Flooded

The House just passed a bill that would eviscerates EPA coal ash regulations. Why are those regulations necessary? See here and here if you want to review what a coal ash spill can do and what the health effects of being near this stuff can be. You want coal ash heavily regulated.

A Republican president in 2017 would sign this into law. Given that the House is going to remain with the GOP and the Senate probably will, this is what Republican governance would look like. Coal ash pollution for all!

What Should the Minimum Wage Actually Be?

[ 47 ] July 24, 2015 |


We often debate this question. $15? $20? Is that too much? At point might it start actually affecting employment? One sensible way to set the minimum wage is to tie it to worker productivity. And if that’s the standard, according to Nicholas Buffie and Dean Baker, the minimum wage could be $18.42, if we tie it to the reasonable standard of peak purchasing power for the wage, achieved in 1968. Seems reasonable to me.

Fast Food Minimum Wage

[ 27 ] July 23, 2015 |


I am glad that the Fight for $15 in fast food has forced the hand on Andrew Cuomo to raise the wages of those workers to $15 by 2021. That’s a win. But it’s totally ridiculous that it is industry-based as opposed to a general minimum wage. I fear the upshot of this will be to create divisions among workers, and perhaps at the same time, to start turning already fractured minimum wage law (national, state, city) into something even more fractured if it turns on industry lines. While one hopes this leads to demands from all workers for $15 an hour, we don’t want to have to do this industry by industry. This is a problem created by Cuomo, who just set a precedent for industry-wide minimum wage differentials. I don’t like that one bit.

Not Just the Flag

[ 53 ] July 23, 2015 |


Southern states didn’t respond to the civil rights movement only by placing Confederate flags on their statehouses or integrating the Stars and Bars into their state flag. They also named public buildings after Confederate leaders during these years. Take the elementary schools of Austin:

It was no coincidence that three other schools bearing the names of notable Confederates popped up in Austin during the civil rights movement, following the federal court-ordered desegregation of public schools.

Those local schools — Sidney Lanier High School, Albert Sidney Johnston High School and John H. Reagan High School — were built at a time when schools were being named after Confederate war heroes across Texas and the South. All three of the high schools are located in neighborhoods with large minority populations.

Some say the names were meant to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Civil War. Others saw the push to glorify the Confederacy as a deliberate slap in the face to minorities and the federal government after the 1954 Supreme Court school desegregation decision Brown v. Board of Education.

That was the symbolic resistance of the Southern state to the imposition of the federal civil rights legislation. Standing on state’s rights and standing on the Lost Cause principle, they went about honoring the Confederacy,” said Frank de la Teja, a Texas State University professor who was appointed Texas state historian between 2007 and 2009 by former Gov. Rick Perry. “And by the way, Austin was an extremely racist town.”

There’s a lot of anti-civil rights Confederate symbolism that needs reversal in the South. The flags are only the first step.

Workplace Safety Recidivists & Republican Economic Ideology

[ 33 ] July 22, 2015 |


Above: The Republican ideal of workplace safety

Some companies just don’t care about workplace safety, even when they receive OSHA fines. One of those companies is Wisconsin’s Ashley Furniture.

Ashley Furniture Industries Inc., already facing a possible $1.7 million fine for alleged safety violations at its massive factory in Arcadia, was accused Tuesday of new infractions and of failing to report worker injuries.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration said a 56-year-old employee of the giant furniture maker lost his right ring finger after a March 11 accident on a machine that the agency had cited as unsafe just one month earlier.

Ashley also failed to report the injury as required, OSHA said. The agency learned of it from a family member of the victim, an OSHA spokeswoman said.

Another Ashley employee was similarly injured in January on the same type of machine, OSHA said. The company also failed to report that injury as required, the agency spokeswoman said.

The latest citations carry proposed fines totaling $83,200. The bulk of that stems from two alleged violations that OSHA deems “willful,” meaning that they were committed “with intentional, knowing or voluntary disregard for the law’s requirement, or with plain indifference to employee safety and health.”

“Workers at Ashley Furniture cannot count on their company to do what’s right when it comes to safety,” Mark Hysell, OSHA’s area director in Eau Claire, said in a statement. “These workers are at risk because this company is intentionally and willfully disregarding OSHA standards and requirements.”

In February, OSHA accused Ashley of 38 safety violations and said the firm was emphasizing profit over worker safety.

Of course this company has very close ties to Scott Walker. So close that one wonders about the legality of those ties. Last year, Walker appointees gave Ashley Furniture a $6 million tax credit that included a provision allowing it to lay off half its in-state workforce. Ashley executives then paid Walker back with $20,000 in campaign donations.

This is what a Walker presidency would look like on a national scale. Gutted workplace safety laws and a whole mess of corporate giveaways in exchange for campaign money. That’s Republican economic ideology in a nutshell.

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