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My favorite Margaret Thatcher moment might be when she pointed out there’s no such thing as public money, only taxpayer money.

Or perhaps when she exposed leftists for being so fixated on class warfare that they would be willing to hurt the poor if they could hurt the rich even more.

That being said, I wouldn’t be surprised if most people instead chose Thatcher’s famous line about socialism and running out of other people’s money.

Which is a great line that cleverly pinpoints the ultimate consequence of statism. Just think Greece or Venezuela.

But what can we say about starting point rather than end point? Why do people get seduced by socialism in the first place?

For part of the answer, let’s turn to the famous quote from George Bernard Shaw about how “A government which robs Peter to pay Paul can always count on the support of Paul.”

Very insightful, I hope you’ll agree.

Though it’s an observation on all governments, not just socialist regimes.

So I’m going to propose a new quote: “Socialism is fun so long as someone else is paying for it.”

And the reason I concocted that quote is because it’s a perfect description of many of the people supporting Bernie Sanders.

According to a poll conducted by Vox, they want freebies from the government so long as they aren’t the ones paying for them.

When we polled voters, we found most Sanders supporters aren’t willing to pay more than an additional $1,000 in taxes for his biggest proposals. That’s well short of how much more the average taxpayer would pay under his tax plan. …In other words, even Sanders supporters are saying they don’t want to pay as much to the federal government for health care as they are paying right now in the private sector. …The kicker for all of this? Some analysts believe Sanders’s plan will cost twice as much as his campaign estimates. …Sanders supporters are far and away the most likely to want free public college tuition. Still, 14 percent said they don’t want to pay additional taxes for it — and another half said they would only pay up to $1,000 a year…the majority of Sanders supporters in our poll (much less all voters) aren’t willing to pay enough to actually support those nationalized services.

As you can see from this chart, they want government to pick up all their medical expenses, but they’re only willing to pay $1,000 or less.

Gee, what profound and deep thinkers.

Maybe we should ask them if they also want private jets if they only have to pay $1,000. And Hollywood mansions as well.

The pie-in-the-sky fantasies of Bernie and his supporters are so extreme that even the statists at the Washington Post have editorialized against his proposals.

Mr. Sanders’s offerings to the American people are, quite simply, too good to be true, and much less feasible, politically or administratively, than he lets on. More expensive, as well. …Despite the substantial tax increases associated with Mr. Sanders’s policies, they would not be fully paid for — not even close. To the contrary, the tax hikes would be sufficient to cover just 46 percent of the spending increases, resulting in additional budget deficits of $18 trillion over 10 years. A deficit increase of that magnitude would cause an additional $3 trillion in interest payments over the same period — unless, of course, Mr. Sanders has another $18 trillion in tax increases or spending cuts up his sleeve.

The editorial writers at the Post, like so many people in Washington, make the mistake of fixating on the symptom of red ink instead of the underlying disease of excessive spending.

Would they actually favor his crazy ideas if he produced $18 trillion of additional tax hikes over the next 10 years?

Returning to the topic of whether Bernie voters actually would be willing to pay more tax, I recently appeared on Fox Business News to discuss the odd phenomenon of workers in the high-tech industry giving contributions to the anti-capitalist Senator from Vermont.

I confess that I don’t really know what would motivate someone to support Bernie Sanders, but I did share some thoughts.

  • Republicans in recent decades have been big spenders, so libertarian-minded voters in Silicon Valley may have decided to base their votes on social issues.
  • The high-tech industry may simply be sending “protection money” to leftist politicians, though that’s probably a motive only for senior executives.
  • It’s rather ironic that the left goes after companies like WalMart and Exxon when firms like Google and Apple have much bigger profit margins.

Don’t forget, by the way, that the only difference between Bernie and Hillary is how fast we travel on the road to Greece.

P.S. Unfortunately, I haven’t accumulated much Bernie humor, though the Sandersized version of Monopoly is quite clever.

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I have no idea whether Donald Trump believes in bigger government or smaller government. Higher taxes or lower taxes. More intervention or less. Sometimes he says things I like. Sometimes he says things that irk me.

Politicians are infamous for being cagey, but “The Donald” is an entirely different animal. Instead of using weasel words that create wiggle room, he simply makes bold statements that are impossible to reconcile.

Consider his views on government debt.

Here’s an interview with Dana Loesch of Blaze TV from earlier this week. I was in Zurich and it was past midnight, so I was a tad bit undiplomatic about Trump’s endlessly evolving views. Simply stated, it’s not a good idea to default. And it’s not a good idea to monetize debt either.

For what it’s worth, while Trump is oscillating between different position on debt, one of his top advisers is claiming that his plan will produce a multi-trillion dollar surplus.

Sigh.

The sensible approach would be for Trump to make simple points.

  1. Debt is a symptom and the real problem is too much spending.
  2. The solution is to follow the Golden Rule.
  3. Therefore, impose a Swiss-style spending cap.

But he hasn’t asked me for advice, so I’m not holding my breath waiting for him to say the right thing.

It’s also a challenge to decipher Trump’s position on tax policy.

He actually put forth a good tax proposal, but nobody takes it seriously since he doesn’t have a concomitant plan to restrain spending.

So his campaign supposedly designated Larry Kudlow and Steve Moore to modify the plan, but then said the original proposal would stay unchanged.

This does not create a sense of confidence.

Trump also is getting pressure on his personal tax situation. He said he would release his tax return(s). Now he says he won’t. I speculated on what this implies in an essay for Time, listing five reasons why he may decide to keep his returns confidential.

The first two reasons deal with a desire for privacy and a political concern that he may appear to be less wealthy than he’s led folks to believe.

First, he may resent the idea of letting the world look at his tax returns for reasons of personal privacy, which is an understandable sentiment. …Can Trump get away with stonewalling on his returns? Perhaps. President Barack Obama refused to release his college transcript and didn’t seem to suffer any political damage. …Second, Trump’s tax return will probably show a surprisingly low level of income, and he might be concerned that such a revelation would erode the super-successful-billionaire aura that he has created.

I also suspect he’s worried that his tax return will make him look like…gasp…a tax avoider.

Third, to the degree that Trump’s return shows a lower-than-expected amount of taxable income, this will probably be because his accountants and tax lawyers have carefully plumbed the 75,000-page internal revenue code for deductions, credits, exemptions, exclusions and other preferences… Since we all seek to legally minimize our tax liabilities, that shouldn’t be a political problem. …That normally would be a persuasive answer, but voters may look askance when they learn that Trump is taking advantage of mysterious provisions dealing with things they don’t understand, like depreciation, carryforwards, foreign tax credits, muni bonds and deferral. …Fourth, for very wealthy individuals and large companies, the complexity of the tax code means there’s no way of knowing if a tax return is accurate. …Given Trump’s persona, he presumably pushes the envelope.

Last but not least, I imagine Trump has “offshore” structures.

Fifth, it’s highly likely that Trump does business with so-called tax havens. For successful investors and entrepreneurs with cross-border economic activity, this is almost obligatory because jurisdictions like the Cayman Islands have ideal combinations of quality governance and tax neutrality. …But in a political environment where the left has tried to demonize “offshore” tax planning, any revelations about BVI companies, Panama law firms, Jersey trusts and Liechtenstein accounts will be fodder for Trump’s many enemies.

Needless to say, I greatly sympathize with Trump’s desire to minimize his tax burden and I applaud his use of so-called tax havens (which are routinely utilized by wealthy Democrats).

And I even sympathize with his desire for privacy even though divulging personal financial information is now a routine obligation for politicians.

The point I should have made in my essay is that Trump would be in a stronger position if he said from the start that his tax returns are nobody else’s business.

And shifting back to policy, he’ll be in a stronger position if he picks a message and sticks to it (though ideally not the same message as Hillary Clinton).

P.S. Since I mentioned Obama’s still-secret college transcript, I may as well share this very clever mock transcript that explains a lot about his misguided approach to policy.

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I normally enjoy working for the Cato Institute since it’s a principled and effective organization.

But every so often, my job requires an unpleasant task, and watching the State-of-the-Union Address as part of Cato’s live-tweeting program counts as one my least enjoyable experiences since joining the team.

But let’s make lemonade out of lemons by looking at lessons that can be learned from Obama’s speech. The most jarring part of the evening was when Obama bragged about the American economy.

Since we’re suffering through the weakest recovery since the Great Depression, that was rather bizarre.

Moreover, being proud that we’re doing better than Europe is akin to getting a participation ribbon in a soccer league for kids.

And the chest thumping about the unemployment rate was very misplaced since that piece of data only looks good because so many Americans have given up on finding a job.

I’ve pontificated on that issue before and cited the Labor Department’s overall data, but let’s dig a little deeper to fully understand why Obama should have apologized rather than patted himself on the back.

Here’s the employment/population ratio for the prime, working-age population of those between 25 and 54 years of age.

As you can see, this ratio has improved a bit over the past five years, but it appears that there’s very little hope that the overall employment situation will ever recover to where it was before the recession.

At least not with current policies.

Here’s another way of looking at the same data. It’s labor force participation by age. The lines don’t seem that far apart, but a 3-4 percentage point decline across age groups adds up to millions of people no longer productively employed.

Last but not least, here’s another way of approaching this data.

We have a chart from the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank showing the number of working-age people not in the labor force.

There are two takeaways from this chart.

First, it’s clear that the problem started well before Obama.

But it’s also clear that the problem has gotten much worse during his tenure.

The bottom line is that the expansion of redistribution programs has lured more and more people out of the labor force, particularly when matched by government policies that have hindered the private sector’s ability to create jobs.

So you’ll understand why I cited labor-force participation (along with stagnant household income) as Obama’s real legacy in this interview.

By the way, one of the perils of live TV is that you sometimes get curve balls. And since the Ted Cruz birther controversy is now big news, I was asked my opinion even though I don’t have the slightest competency to discuss the issue.

Sort of like the time I went on a program for the ostensible purpose of discussing trade and wound up trapped in a discussion on America’s relationship with North Korea.

My only regret from yesterday’s interview is that I wasn’t clever enough to say that I was more worried about Cruz supporting a Canadian-style tax system than I was about Cruz being born in Canada.

P.S. While I’m not happy about Cruz including a value-added tax in his reform proposal, don’t read too much into that grousing since there are warts in the other candidates’ plans as well.

With one exception.

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Okay, the title for today’s column is a bit grandiose. It implies weighty and ponderous analysis of America’s ever-growing entitlement state and potentially dour predictions about when we reach a tipping point of too much dependency.

But let’s focus on the short run, which isn’t quite so depressing. I was one of John Stossel’s guests as we looked at what happened in 2015 and gave a sober assessment of whether the United States is moving in the right direction or wrong direction.

If you don’t want to watch 30-plus minutes, here are the highlights.

I’ll start with what has me worried and/or glum.

According to the political betting markets (which I feel are more accurate than polls), Donald Trump’s chances keep increasing. I don’t feel confident, however, that he would shrink the size and scope of government if he made it to the White House. And he’s using up the oxygen of candidates who (while imperfect) seem more sincerely interested in advancing economic liberty.

I see little hope of fixing a refugee program that lures newcomers into welfare dependency (and may breed terrorism by creating a dispiriting environment of helplessness).

Speaking of which, as government gets bigger and bigger, it becomes even less competent about fulfilling legitimate responsibilities such as thwarting people who want to kill us.

Here’s what I’m happy and/or optimistic about.

People are displeased about what’s happening in Washington, and it’s healthy for there to be hostility and distrust toward government.

There’s a real opportunity for genuine entitlement reform in 2017.

American society is becoming more tolerant. As I argued on the program, I don’t care whether people approve of gays or pot smoking, but I do want to be part of a society that (unlike Iran!) doesn’t persecute or harass people for behaviors or beliefs that don’t harm others.

So some good things are happening.

Though I reserve the right to be really depressed later this year.

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Several years ago, I shared some analysis suggesting that voting for Obamacare resulted in about 25 Democrats losing their congressional seats in 2010. And since more Democrats presumably lost seats in 2012 and 2014 because of that costly and misguided scheme, it surely seems that expanding government’s role in health care was a net negative for the Democratic Party.

Being a contrarian, however, I then suggested in my analysis that Obamacare nonetheless might be a net plus for Democrats, at least in the long run. Simply stated, as more and more people get ensnared in the quicksand of government dependency, that creates an ever-growing bloc of voters who may think that it is in their interest to support politicians who advocate for bigger government.

Let’s expand on that issue today.

Some of my Republican friends (I’m willing to associate with all sorts of disreputable people) have been making the point that President Obama has crippled the Democratic Party.

And they have a compelling case. If you compare the number of Democrats in the House and Senate when Obama took office with the amount that there are today, it’s clear that the President has been very bad news his party.

I suppose a defender of the President somehow might argue that the losses for congressional Democrats would have been more severe without Obama, but that would be a huge intellectual challenge.

Perhaps even more important, there’s been a giant loss of Democratic state legislators during Obama’s tenure, with more than 900 seats going from Democrat control to Republican control.

That’s resulted in a huge shift in the partisan control of state legislatures. Which, by the way, has very important implications for Congress because of the redistricting that takes place every 10 years.

So it seems like Republicans are in a good situation. They control Congress and they control most of the states.

And if GOPers pick up the White House in 2016, it surely seems like that would be the icing on the cake for those who say Obama was bad news for the Democrats.

But now let me give some encouraging news for my Democrat friends (like I said, I consort with shady people).

First, Republican control doesn’t necessarily mean a shift away from big government. Indeed, we saw just the opposite during the Bush years.

Second, even if small government-oriented Republicans controlled Washington after the 2016 election, that might not change the nation’s long-run trend toward more dependency.

These are some of the issues I explore in this CBN interview.

The most relevant point in the interview, in my humble opinion, was the discussion about one-third of the way through the interview. I talked about the “ratchet effect,” which occurs when the statists expand the size and scope of government a lot and good policy makers then get control and reduce it by only a small amount.

Stay in that pattern long enough and you eventually become Greece (which is why I emphasized in the interview the need to reverse this trend with big systemic changes such as genuine entitlement reform).

One final point. Pat gave me an opportunity to brag about the Cato Institute at the end of the interview. It is nice to work at a think tank that cares solely about policy and not about partisan labels. So we criticize big-government Republicans just as much as we criticize big-government Democrats.

No wonder we’ve been identified as America’s most effective think tank.

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We’ve been suffering through the weakest recovery since the Great Depression. Labor force participation hasn’t recovered and median household income is stagnant.

So how are our benevolent and kind overseers in Washington responding?

Are they reducing the burden of spending? Nope, they just busted the spending caps (again).

Are they cutting back on red tape? No, they’re moving in the other direction.

Are they lowering taxes? With Obama in the White House, that’s not even a serious question.

But that doesn’t mean all the people in Washington is sitting on their collective hands. The folks at the Federal Reserve have been trying to goose the economy with an easy-money policy.

Unfortunately, as I argue in this recent interview, that’s not a recipe for success.

At best, an easy-money policy is ineffective, akin to “pushing on a string.” At worst, it creates bubbles and does serious damage.

Yet if you don’t like the Fed trying to manipulate the economy, you’re often perceived as a crank. And if you’re an elected official who questions the Fed’s actions, you’re often portrayed as some sort of uninformed demagogue.

I explored this issue today in The Federalist. In my column, I defended Senators Rand Paul and Ted Cruz.

Rand Paul and Ted Cruz…deserve credit for criticizing the Federal Reserve. …This irks some folks, who seem to think Fed critics are knuckle-dragging rubes and yahoos with a superstitious fealty to the gold standard.

This isn’t a debate over the gold standard, per se, but instead of fight over monetary Keynesianism vs. monetary rules.

The dispute isn’t really about a gold standard, but whether the Federal Reserve should have lots of discretionary power.  …On one side are the advocates of…the monetary component of Keynesian economics. Proponents explicitly want the Fed to fine-tune and micromanage the economy. …On the other side are folks who believe in rules to limit the Fed’s powers…because they believe discretionary power is more likely to give us bad results such as higher price inflation, volatility in output and employment, and financial instability.

And the Joint Economic Committee is on the side of rules. Here’s an excerpt from a JEC report that I cited in my article.

Well-reasoned, stable and predictable monetary policy reduces economic volatility and promotes long-term economic growth and job creation. Generally, ‘rules-based’ policies reduce uncertainties and facilitate long-term planning and investment. …Conversely, activist, interventionist, and discretionary monetary policies have been historically associated with increased economic volatility and subpar economic performance.

I then mention various rules-based methods of limiting the Fed’s discretion and conclude by commenting on the legitimacy of those who want to curtail the Federal Reserve.

Paul and Cruz may not be experts on monetary policy, just as left-wing senators doubtlessly have no understanding of the intricacies of discretionary monetary policy. But the two senators are on very solid ground, with an illustrious intellectual lineage, when they assert that it would be a good idea to constrain the Fed.

Now let’s expand on two issues. First, I mention in my article the gold standard as a potential rule to constrain the Fed. I’ve previously shared some analysis by George Selgin on this topic. He’s concluded that governments won’t ever allow its return and probably couldn’t be trusted with such a system anyway, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work.

Here are some excerpts from a recent article by George. Read the entire thing, but here’s the part that matters most for this discussion.

…the gold standard was hardly perfect, and gold bugs themselves sometimes make silly claims about their favorite former monetary standard. …the classical gold standard worked remarkably well (while it lasted). …it certainly did contribute both to the general abundance of goods of all sorts, to the ease with which goods and capital flowed from nation to nation, and, especially, to the sense of a state of affairs that was “normal, certain, and permanent.” The gold standard achieved these things mainly by securing a degree of price-level and exchange rate stability and predictability that has never been matched since.

And Norbert Michel of the Heritage Foundation touches on some of the same issues in a new column for Forbes.

Several candidates suggested the gold standard was a good system, and they’re all getting flak for talking about gold.

But here’s the most fascinating revelation from Norbert’s column. It turns out that even Ben Bernanke agrees with George Selgin that the classical gold standard worked very well. Norbert quotes this passage from Bernanke.

The gold standard appeared to be highly successful from about 1870 to the beginning of World War I in 1914. During the so-called “classical” gold standard period, international trade and capital flows expanded markedly, and central banks experienced relatively few problems ensuring that their currencies retained their legal value.

Both Norbert’s article and George’s article have lots of good (but depressing) analysis of how governments went off the gold standard because of World War I and then put in place a hopelessly weak and impractical version of a gold standard after the war (the politicians didn’t want to be constrained by an effective system).

So here’s Norbert’s bottom line, which is very similar to the conclusion in my column for The Federalist.

Many who favor the gold standard recognize that it provided a nominal anchor as opposed to the discretionary fiat system we have now. Maybe the gold standard isn’t the best way to achieve that nominal anchor, but we shouldn’t just dismiss the whole notion.

The second issue worth mentioning is that the best way to deal with bad monetary policy may be to have no monetary policy.

At least not a monetary policy from government. This video explains the merits of this approach.

Gee, maybe Friedrich Hayek was right and private markets produce better results than government monopolies.

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I periodically make comparisons of the United States and Europe that are not very flattering for our cousins across the Atlantic.

Though this isn’t because of any animus toward Europe. Indeed, I always enjoy my visits. And some of America’s best (albeit eroding) features, such as rule of law and dignity of the individual, are a cultural inheritance from that continent.

Nor am I trying to overstate America’s competitiveness, which actually has eroded considerably during this century.

Instead, I’m simply trying to make the narrow point that too much government is already causing serious problems in Europe, and I’m worried those problems are spreading to the United States.

Yet some of our statist friends, most notably Senator Bernie Sanders, think America should deliberately choose to be more like Europe.

They have this halcyon vision that the average European is more prosperous and they exclaim that this is proof that a big welfare state is benign. Or perhaps even beneficial.

So it was with great interest that I read a new article by Ryan McMaken of the Mises Institute. He takes a data-driven look at the America-v-Europe economic debate.

The battle over the assumed success of European socialism continues. Many European countries like Sweden have gained a reputation as being very wealthy in spite of their highly regulated and taxed economies. From there, many assume that the rest of Europe is more or less similar, even if slightly poorer. But if we look more closely at the data, a very different picture emerges.

Actually, I have a minor disagreement with the above passage.

Countries like Sweden and Denmark are highly taxed, but it’s not true that they’re highly regulated.

Or, to be more accurate, there almost surely is too much regulation in those nations, but since we’re discussing the relative economic performance of the United States and Europe, the relevant point is that there’s less government intervention in certain European countries (particularly Nordic nations) than there is in the United States.

The only reason that they generally lag behind the United States in the overall rankings is that they have very bad fiscal policy and that more than offsets the advantage they generally have over America in other categories.

But I’m digressing.

Let’s focus on the main point of the article, which is an effort to produce a neutral comparison of living standards in European nations and American states.

…if one is going to draw broad conclusions about poverty among various countries, GDP numbers are arguably not the best metric. For one, GDP per capita can be skewed upward by a small number of ultra-rich persons.  …I thought it might be helpful to use data that relies on median income data instead, so as to better account for inequalities in income and to get a better picture of what the median resident’s purchasing power.

McMaken uses OECD data to calculate relative levels of median income.

The nationwide median income for the US is in red. To the left of the red column are other OECD countries, and to the right of the red bar are individual US states. These national-level comparisons take into account taxes, and include social benefits (e.g., “welfare” and state-subsidized health care) as income. Purchasing power is adjusted to take differences in the cost of living in different countries into account. Since Sweden is held up as a sort of promised land by American socialists, let’s compare it first. We find that, if it were to join the US as a state, Sweden would be poorer than all but 12 states, with a median income of $27,167.

And here’s the chart he described (click to enlarge). Remember, this is a look at the income of the median (rather than mean) household, so the numbers are not distorted by the presence of people like Bill Gates.

Here’s some additional analysis based on his number-crunching.

With the exception of Luxembourg ($38,502), Norway ($35,528), and Switzerland ($35,083), all countries shown would fail to rank as high-income states were they to become part of the United States. In fact, most would fare worse than Mississippi, the poorest state. For example, Mississippi has a higher median income ($23,017) than 18 countries measured here. The Czech Republic, Estonia, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Korea, Poland, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain, and the United Kingdom all have median income levels below $23,000 and are thus below every single US state. …Germany, Europe’s economic powerhouse, has a median income ($25,528) level below all but 9 US states.

We could stop at this point and declare that the United States was more economically prosperous than all European nations other that oil-rich Norway and the twin financial centers of Switzerland and Luxembourg.

This doesn’t bode well for Bernie Sanders’ claim that America should be more like Sweden and Denmark.

But McMaken expands upon his analysis and explains that the above numbers actually are too generous to Europeans.

We’ve already accounted for cost of living at the national level (using PPP data), but the US is so much larger than all  other countries compared here, we really need to consider the regional cost of living in the United States. Were we to calculate real incomes based on the cost of living in each state, we’d find that real purchasing power is even higher in many of the lower-income states than we see above. Using the BEA’s regional price parity index, we can take now account for the different cost of living in different states.

And he produces a new graph, once again featuring the United States average in red, with other developed nations to the left and numbers for various states to the right.

McMaken gives some added context to these new adjusted-for-cost-of-living numbers.

…there’s less variation in the median income levels among the US states. That makes sense because many states with low median incomes also have a very low cost of living. …This has had the effect of giving us a more realistic view of the purchasing power of the median household in US states. It is also more helpful in comparing individual states to OECD members, many of which have much higher costs of living than places like the American south and midwest.  Now that we recognize how inexpensive it is to live in places like Tennessee, Florida, and Kentucky, we find that residents in those states now have higher median incomes than Sweden (a place that’s 30% more expensive than the US) and most other OECD countries measured.

And here’s the most powerful data from his article.

Once purchasing power among the US states is taken into account, we find that Sweden’s median income ($27,167) is higher than only six states… We find something similar when we look at Germany, but in Germany’s case, every single US state shows a higher median income than Germany. …None of this analysis should really surprise us.

In other words, even when we limit the comparison to Europe’s more successful welfare states, the United States does better.

Not because America is a hyper-free market jurisdiction like Hong Kong or Singapore. Instead, the U.S. does better simply because European nations deviate even further from the right recipe for prosperity.

I commented on some of these issues in this interview with Dana Loesch of Blaze TV, specifically noting that living standards in Denmark and Sweden are below American levels.

I also recycled my assertion that Bernie Sanders isn’t even a real socialist, at least if we’re relying on the technical economic definition of having the government own the means of production.

P.S. In typically blunt yet analytically rigorous fashion, Thomas Sowell identifies where Obama belongs on the economic spectrum.

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