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Posts Tagged ‘Unfunded Liabilities’

Back in 2013, I shared a poll to see who people would pick as their “favorite political cartoonist.” Michael Ramirez currently has the lead, which doesn’t surprise me when you look at options (here, here, here, and here) I provided.

But if there was a prize for the most depressingly accurate political cartoon, he also would win the prize for his depiction of what happens when state and local politicians “negotiate” compensation packages for bureaucrats.

Simply stated, politicians have a giant incentive to provide lavish benefits to interest groups that then recycle some of the loot back to elected officials in the form of campaign contributions.

But the real key to the scam is that the bill gets imposed on future generations.

The American Legislative Exchange Council has a must-read report on the giant funding gaps that this has produced in the pension plans for state and local government bureaucrats.

If net pension assets are determined using more realistic investment return assumptions, pension funding gaps are much wider than even the large sums reported in state financial documents. Unfunded liabilities (using a risk-free rate of return assumption) of state-administered pension plans now exceed $6 trillion—an increase of $433 billion since our 2016 report. The national average funding ratio is a mere 33.7 percent, amounting to $18,676 dollars of unfunded liabilities for every resident of the United States. …the personal share of liability for every resident in each state, an indicator of the severity of the taxes to be borne now or in the future by each taxpayer for promises made but not funded. In Alaska, each resident is on the hook for a staggering $45,689, the highest in the nation. Connecticut, Ohio, Illinois, and New Mexico follow for the five highest per person unfunded pension liabilities.

This map is the most important takeaway from the report. It shows which states have the highest per-capita unfunded liabilities.

I’m not surprised to see Alaska, Illinois, Connecticut, and New Jersey near the bottom of the rankings. All of them were choices in my poll on which state was “most likely to collapse.”

But perhaps New Mexico, Hawaii, and Ohio should have been on that list as well.

For further background on the issue, here are some passages from a pension primer published by Forbes.

Years ago, as an actuarial student, …I remember…first, the eye-popping idea that state constitutions promised state and local employees that they could keep their existing benefits, not just for past service accruals, but for all future years of employment; and, second, the notion that it was generally accepted for public plans to be un- or underfunded… this is the story that’s repeated over and over again.  Pensions are made more generous — with high accrual rates, low retirement eligibility ages, generous cost of living provisions — as a means of providing more generous compensation to state and local employees, without actually needing to pay anything from the current year’s budget.  Costs are deferred until well after current legislators have themselves retired. …pension debt is even worse than ordinary state debts, for instance, bond issues for building up infrastructure.  Pension debt is nothing other than borrowing to pay for present-day employee salaries.

In other words, bureaucrat pensions are a scam, an opportunity for politicians to buy off a powerful voting bloc today while imposing the bill on the future.

Bureaucrats are making out like bandits, as the New York Times recently reported.

A public university president in Oregon gives new meaning to the idea of a pensioner. Joseph Robertson, …who retired as head of the Oregon Health & Science University last fall, receives the state’s largest government pension. It is $76,111. Per month. That is considerably more than the average Oregon family earns in a year. Oregon — like many other states and cities, including New Jersey, Kentucky and Connecticut — is caught in a fiscal squeeze of its own making. Its economy is growing, but the cost of its state-run pension system is growing faster. More government workers are retiring, including more than 2,000, like Dr. Robertson, who get pensions exceeding $100,000 a year. The state is not the most profligate pension payer in America… “It’s an affront to everybody who pays taxes,” said Bruce Dennis, a retired carpenter from outside Portland who earned a $54,000-a-year pension by swinging a hammer for 45 years. No one gives him extra money.

But there’s a problem with this scam.

As Margaret Thatcher famously noted, sooner or later you run out of other people’s money.

And we’re getting to that point, as illustrated by this article for the Wall Street Journal. It cites what’s happening on the state level in Connecticut.

Connecticut has just 31.7% of what it needs to pay its employees’ future retirement benefits, according to state financial reports. A fund for teachers has 52.3%. Together, that adds up to more than $37 billion in unfunded pension liabilities, or about $10,300 per Connecticut resident. Connecticut’s unfunded pension liabilities resulted from nearly 40 years of politicians making promises about benefits without adequately funding them, according to a 2015 study by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.

And it gives an example of trouble at the local level from a city in Michigan.

East Lansing, home of Michigan State University…is struggling with almost $125 million in unfunded pension and retiree health-care liabilities, has been cutting services… East Lansing asked MSU to pony up $100 million over 20 years to help shore up the city’s underfunded pension plan. The alternative, the city said, was asking voters to approve a 1% income tax that would hit university employees and working students. After negotiations went nowhere, the city brought the income-tax proposal before voters in a referendum last November. …On Nov. 7, East Lansing residents shot down the income-tax referendum, forcing the city to debate what services to cut to save money for the pension obligations. …The city hopes to shed another 17 police and fire positions over the next two years… Altmann suggested a long list of potential cuts to make more room in the budget for increased pension payments: closing the fire station on MSU’s campus, shuttering the city’s pool, aquatic center, dog park and soccer complex, suspending bulk leaf pickup and plowing of public sidewalks and ending annual jazz, folk, film and art festivals.

This is not going to end well.

And the problem seems to get worse every year.

Doesn’t matter who is slicing and dicing the data. The numbers always look grim.

When the next recession hits, many of these simmering problems are going to explode.

P.S. In addition to extravagant and unfunded pensions, don’t forget that state and local bureaucrats (and their federal cousins) are overpaid.

P.P.S. And if you don’t believe that they’re overpaid, then please explain why they don’t voluntarily leave their jobs for positions in the economy’s productive sector?

P.P.P.S. Also keep in mind that there are negative macroeconomic repercussions when bureaucrats are overpaid.

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Perhaps because there’s no hope for genuine Obamacare repeal and limited hope for sweeping tax reform, I’m having to look outside of Washington for good news.

I wrote the other day about the very successful tax reforms in North Carolina. So now let’s travel to the Midwest.

The Wall Street Journal‘s editorial page has a very upbeat assessment of Michigan’s turnaround, though it starts by noting that many states teach us lessons on what shouldn’t happen.

…states can provide instructive policy lessons for better and sometimes worse—see the fiscal crack-ups in Connecticut and Illinois.

I definitely agree about the fiscal disasters of Connecticut and Illinois. And Michigan used to be in that group.

Former Michigan Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm was a progressive specialist in using the tax code to politically allocate capital, which depressed and distorted business investment. Between 2002 and 2007, Michigan was the only state to experience zero economic growth. …misguided policies were arguably bigger contributors to Michigan’s slump. Between 2002 and 2007, Michigan’s manufacturing grew at a third of the rate of the Great Lakes region. …In 2007 Democrats increased the state income tax to 4.35% from 3.9%. They also enacted a new business tax with a 4.95% tax on income, a 0.8% gross-receipts tax, plus a 21.99% surcharge on business tax liability. …Michigan’s economy plunged amid the national recession with unemployment hitting 14.9% in June 2009.

But Michigan has experienced a remarkable turnaround in recent years.

Michigan…offers a case study in the pro-growth potential of business tax reform. …Mr. Snyder’s first major undertaking with his Republican legislature was to replace the cumbersome state business tax with a 6% corporate tax and trim the individual rate to 4.25%. Michigan’s corporate-tax ranking jumped to seventh from 49th in the Tax Foundation’s business tax climate rankings. …They also reformed state-worker pensions. After the 2012 midterm elections, Republicans passed right-to-work legislation that lets workers choose whether to join unions. In 2014 state voters approved a ballot measure backed by the governor to repeal the personal-property tax for small businesses and manufacturers.

These reforms already are paying dividends.

In 2011 Michigan added jobs for the first time in six years, and it has since led the Great Lakes region in manufacturing growth. Unemployment has fallen below the national average to 3.9% even as the labor-force participation rate has ticked up. …Unemployment in the Detroit metro area has fallen to 3.2% from 11.4% six years ago. Businesses in Ann Arbor and Grand Rapids say they can’t find enough workers. Perhaps they should try recruiting in Chicago or New Haven.

As a fiscal wonk, I’m delighted by tax cuts and tax reform. That being said, I want to specifically focus on the reform of bureaucrat pensions in the Wolverine State.

It was mentioned as an aside in the WSJ editorial, but it may be even more important than tax changes in the long run. We’ll start with a short video the Mackinac Center produced to helped stimulate debate.

Here’s some of what Investor’s Business Daily wrote about the recent reforms.

We’ll start with a description of the problem that existed.

For years, Michigan had been racking up pension liabilities for public school teachers that it had no money to pay for. By 2016, the state’s unfunded liability had reached $29 billion — which meant state was funding only 60% of its pension obligations. …Michigan is hardly the only state to have made this mistake. Pressured by public sector unions, state lawmakers boosted retirement benefits, using wildly unrealistic forecasts for investment returns and wage growth to justify them.

And here are the admirable reforms that were enacted.

So what did Michigan do to avoid Illinois’ fate? It embraced bold pension reforms that will protect taxpayers and provide a solid retirement benefit to teachers. …it’s shifting its public school teachers toward defined contribution plans. All new hires will be automatically enrolled in a 401(k)-type plan with a default 10% contribution rate. Teachers will still be able to opt for a traditional defined benefit pension, but one that splits costs 50-50 between workers and the state, and includes safeguards that will prevent the funding ratio from dropping below 85%.

The experts at Reason also weighed in on the topic.

Pension analysts from the Reason Foundation (which publishes this blog and advocated for passage of SB 401) say no other state in the country has embraced reforms that go as far as Michigan’s. …new hires will be enrolled in a 401(k)-style pension plan, giving those workers the chance to control their own retirement planning while removing the threat of future unfunded liabilities. …What makes the Michigan proposal unique is it allows future hires to choose a so-called “hybrid” pension system retaining some elements of the old system with a provision requiring pension system to be shuttered if the gap between the fund’s liabilities and assets falls below 85 percent for two consecutive years. The mixed approach, allowing teachers to choose between a traditional pension and a 401(k)-style retirement plan, could be a model for other states to follow as they grapple with similar pension troubles.

Though the bill isn’t a panacea.

Paying down those obligations will take time—all current teachers and public school employees will remain enrolled in the current pension system and retirees will continue to collect benefits from it—but [it]…would make a big difference in the state’s long-term fiscal outlook.

Here’s a chart from the Mackinac Center showing how pensions became a growing problem. Unwinding this mess understandably won’t happen overnight.

But at least Michigan lawmakers took a real step in the right direction.

The same principle applies in Washington. Reforms to Medicare and Social Security wouldn’t change payments to existing retirees. And older workers generally would stick with the status quo.

But proposed entitlement reforms would lead to substantial long-run savings as younger workers are given the freedom to participate in new systems.

 

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Since it is the single-largest government program, not only in the United States but also the entire world, it’s remarkable that Social Security isn’t getting much attention from fiscal policy wonks.

Sure, Obamacare is a more newsworthy issue because of the repeal/replace fight. And yes, it’s true that Medicare and Medicaid are growing faster and eventually will consume a larger share of the economy.

But those aren’t reasons to turn a blind eye toward a program that will soon have an annual budget of $1 trillion. Especially since the tax-and-spend crowd in Washington is actually arguing that the program should be expanded. I’m not kidding.

If nothing else, the just-released Trustees Report from the Social Security Administration demands attention. As I do every year, I immediately looked at Table VI.G9, which shows the annual inflation-adjusted budgetary impact of the program.

Here’s a chart showing how the program has grown since 1970 and what is expected in the future. Remember, these are inflation-adjusted numbers, so the sharp increase in outlays over the next several decades starkly illustrates that Social Security will be grabbing ever-larger amounts of money from the economy’s productive sector.

It’s also worth noting that the program already is in the red. Social Security outlays began to exceed revenues back in 2010.

And the numbers will get more out of balance over time.

By the way, some people say that the program is in decent shape since the “Trust Fund” isn’t projected to run out of money until 2034. That’s technically true, but utterly meaningless since it is nothing but a pile of IOUs.

You don’t have to believe me. A few years ago, I quoted this passage from one of Bill Clinton’s budgets.

These balances are available to finance future benefit payments and other trust fund expenditures–but only in a bookkeeping sense. …They do not consist of real economic assets that can be drawn down in the future to fund benefits. Instead, they are claims on the Treasury, that, when redeemed, will have to be financed by raising taxes, borrowing from the public, or reducing benefits or other expenditures.

Amen.

This is why annual cash flow into and out of the program is what matters, at least if we care about the Social Security’s economic impact.

And for those who want to know about the gap between the inflow and outflow, here’s a chart showing how deficits are going to explode in coming decades. Again, keep in mind these are inflation-adjusted numbers.

That’s not a typo in the chart. The total shortfall between now and 2095 is a staggering $44.2 trillion. Yes, trillion.

Remarkably, there’s an even bigger long-run problem with Medicare and Medicaid. Which helps to explain I relentlessly push for genuine entitlement reform.

But let’s focus today on Social Security. The answer to this looming fiscal nightmare is to copy one of the many nations that have shifted to “funded” retirement systems based on real savings. I’m a big fan of the Australian approach. Chile also has a great system, and Switzerland and the Netherlands are good role models as well. Hong Kong and Singapore also rely on private savings for retirement, and both jurisdictions demonstrate that aging populations and falling birthrates aren’t necessarily a fiscal death sentence. Heck, even the Faroe Islands and Sweden have jumped on the bandwagon of private retirement accounts.

P.P.S. You can enjoy some Social Security cartoons here, here, and here. And we also have a Social Security joke if you appreciate grim humor.

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The most depressing data about America’s economy is not the top tax rate, the regulatory burden, or the level of wasteful of government spending.

Those numbers certainly are grim, but I think they’re not nearly as depressing as America’s demographic outlook.

As you can see from this sobering image, America’s population pyramid is turning into a population cylinder.

There’s nothing a priori wrong with an aging population and a falling birthrate, of course, but those factors create a poisonous outlook when mixed with poorly designed entitlement programs.

The lesson is that a modest-sized welfare state is sustainable (even if not advisable) when a nation has a population pyramid. But even a small welfare state becomes a problem when a nation has a population cylinder. Simply stated, there aren’t enough people to pull the wagon and there are too many people riding in the wagon.

But if America’s numbers are depressing, the data from Europe should lead to mass suicide.

The Wall Street Journal has a new story on the utterly dismal fiscal and demographic data from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

State-funded pensions are at the heart of Europe’s social-welfare model, insulating people from extreme poverty in old age. Most European countries have set aside almost nothing to pay these benefits, simply funding them each year out of tax revenue. Now, European countries face a demographic tsunami, in the form of a growing mismatch between low birthrates and high longevity, for which few are prepared. …Looking at Europeans 65 or older who aren’t working, there are 42 for every 100 workers, and this will rise to 65 per 100 by 2060, the European Union’s data agency says. …Though its situation is unusually dire, Greece isn’t the only European government being forced to acknowledge it has made pension promises it can ill afford. …Across Europe, the birthrate has fallen 40% since the 1960s to around 1.5 children per woman, according to the United Nations. In that time, life expectancies have risen to roughly 80 from 69. …Only a few countries estimate the total debt burden of the pension promises they have made.

The various nations is Europe may not produce the data, but one of the few good aspects of international bureaucracies is that they generate such numbers.

I’ve previously shared projections from the IMF, BIS, and OECD, all of which show the vast majority of developed nations will face serious fiscal crises in the absence of reforms to restrain the burden of government spending.

New we can add some data from the European Commission, which has an Ageing Report that is filled with some horrifying demographic and fiscal information.

First, here are the numbers showing that most parts of the world (and especially Europe) will have many more old people but a lot fewer working-age people.

Looking specifically at the European Union, here’s what will happen to the population pyramid between 2013 and 2060. As you can see, the pyramid no longer exists today and will become an upside-down pyramid in the future.

Now let’s look at data on the ratio between old people and working-age people in various EU nations.

Dark blue shows the recent data, medium blue is the dependency ratio in 2030, and the light blue shows the dependency ration in 2060.

The bottom line is that it won’t be long before any two working-age people in the EU will be expected to support themselves plus one old person. That necessarily implies a very onerous tax burden.

But the numbers actually are even more depressing than what is shown in the above chart.

In the European Commission’s Ageing Report, there’s an estimate of the “economic dependency ratio,” which compares the number of workers with the number of people supported by those workers.

The total economic dependency ratio is a more comprehensive indicator, which is calculated as the ratio between the total inactive population and employment (either 20-64 or 20-74). It gives a measure of the average number of individuals that each employed “supports”.

And here are the jaw-dropping numbers.

These numbers are basically a death knell for an economy. The tax burden necessary for this kind of society would be ruinous to an  economy. A huge share of productive people in these nations would decide not to work or to migrate where they would have a chance to keep a decent share of their earnings.

So now you understand why I wrote a column identifying safe havens that might remain stable while other nations are suffering Greek-style fiscal collapse.

Having shared all this depressing data, allow me to close with some semi-optimistic data.

I recently wrote that Hong Kong’s demographic outlook is far worse than what you find in Europe, but I explained that this won’t cause a crisis because Hong Kong wisely has chosen not to adopt a welfare state. People basically save for their own retirement.

Well, a handful of European nations have taken some steps to restrain spending. Here’s a table from the EC report on countries which have rules designed to adjust outlays as the population gets older.

These reforms are better than nothing, but the far better approach is a shift to a system of private retirement savings.

As you can see from this chart, Denmark, Sweden, and the Netherlands already have a large degree of mandatory private retirement savings, and a handful of other countries have recently adopted private Social Security systems that will help the long-run outlook.

I’ve already written about the sensible “pre-funded” system in The Netherlands, and there are many other nations (ranging from Australia to Chile to the Faroe Islands) that have implemented this type of reform.

Given all the other types of government spending across the Atlantic, Social Security reform surely won’t be a sufficient condition to save Europe, but it surely is a necessary condition.

Here’s my video explaining why such reform is a good idea, both in America and every other place in the world.

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As a supporter of genuine capitalism, which means the right of contract and the absence of coercion, I don’t think there should be any policies that help or hinder unions.

The government should simply be a neutral referee that enforces contracts and upholds the rule of law.

Similarly, I also don’t have any philosophical objection to employers and employees agreeing to “defined benefit” pension plans, which basically promise workers a pre-determined amount of money after they retire based on factors such as average pay and years in the workforce.

After all, my money and property aren’t involved, so it’s not my business.

That being said, these so-called “DB plans” have a bad habit of going bankrupt. And that means the rest of us may get stuck with the bill if there’s a taxpayer bailout.

I discuss these issues in an interview with Fox Business News.

My main point is that there’s a deep hole in many of these plans, so someone is going to feel some pain.

I don’t want taxpayers to be hit, and I also don’t think well-managed pensions should be gouged with ever-rising premiums simply because other plans are faltering.

But I bet both will suffer, as will workers and retirees in the under-funded plans.

As part of the interview, I also warned that other “DB plans” are ticking time bombs. More specifically, most pensions for state and local bureaucrats involve (overly generous) pre-determined commitments and very rarely have governments set aside the amount of money needed to fund those promises.

And the biggest DB time bomb is Social Security, which has an unfunded cash-flow liability of more than $30 trillion. That’s a lot of money even by Washington standards.

But I closed with a bit of good news.

As workers and employers have learned that DB plans tend to be unstable and unsustainable, there has been a marked shift toward “defined contribution” plans such as IRAs and 401(k)s.

These plans are the private property of workers, so there’s no risk that the money will be stolen or squandered.

But even this good news comes with a caveat. We closed the interview by fretting about the possibility that governments will steal (or at least over-tax) these private pension assets at some point in the future.

That’s already happened in Argentina and Poland, so I’m not just being a paranoid libertarian.

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One of the challenges of good entitlement reform (or even bad entitlement reform) is that recipients think they’ve “earned” benefits.

If you tell them that programs such as Medicare are unsustainable and need to be changed, some of them suspect you’re trying to somehow cheat them. After all, they were forced to cough up payroll taxes during their working year.

That’s true, but the real issue is how much did they pay in tax and how much are they getting back.

Here’s a very sobering chart from the recently released Long-Term Fiscal Outlook from the Congressional Budget Office.

It shows that people in their 50s, 60s, and 70s paid, on average, between $45,000-$65,000 of taxes into Medicare. That’s a big chunk of money, but it’s far less than the $160,000-$270,000 that Medicare will spend on them.

Medicare individual tax spending

I’m tempted to say that current retirees and older workers are being charged for a hamburger but they’re getting a steak.

But that’s not accurate. As most recipients will tell you, Medicare leaves a lot to be desired, which is what you might expect with a government-run system.

So the right way to look at the program is that recipients are being charged for a hamburger, they’re getting a hamburger, but taxpayers (the ones who make up the funding gap) are being charged for a steak.

Which is why structural reform is the only good way of dealing with the program’s giant unfunded liability. As explained in this video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

As discussed in the video, the reform (which has been part of the Ryan budget that’s been approved by the House) basically leaves the program as is for current retirees and older workers, but younger workers are allowed to move to a new system that gives them – upon retirement – the ability to choose their preferred health policy.

P.S. Don’t forget that we also need to reform Medicaid and Social Security, the other two big entitlement programs.

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Everyone has a cross to bear in life, some sort of burden or obligation, often self-imposed.

For some inexplicable reason, I’ve decided that one of my responsibilities is to educate a backwards and primitive people who seem impervious to common sense, simple logic, and strong principles.

As you’ve probably guessed already, I’m talking about Republicans.

I’ve already identified them at the Stupid Party, but they seem especially ill-informed and clueless on the topic of government borrowing.

I’ve specifically warned that they are economically (and politically) misguided when they focus on deficits and debt as America’s main fiscal problem.

I even created a “Bob Dole Award” in hopes of getting this point across. Simply stated, fixating on debt opens the door for higher taxes.

And does anyone think our economy would be stronger, or our fiscal position would be better, if we replaced some debt-financed spending with some spending financed by class-warfare taxes?

Especially since the higher taxes almost certainly would trigger more spending, so government borrowing would stay the same and the only thing that would change is that we’d be saddled with even more waste.

Notwithstanding all my educational efforts, Republicans couldn’t resist jumping up and down and making loud noises earlier this week when the national debt hit the $16 trillion mark earlier this week (a google search for “$16 trillion debt” returned more than 24 million hits).

So let’s walk through (again) why this is misguided.

First, let’s clear up some numbers that cause confusion. Republicans are complaining about something called the “gross federal debt.” This number is largely meaningless (see table 7.1 of the OMB Historical Tables if you want to look at the details).

It is the combination of a somewhat meaningful number of more than $11 trillion known as “debt held by the public,” which is a measure of how much the federal government has borrowed over time from the private sector, and a totally irrelevant number  of about $4.5 trillion known as “debt held by federal government accounts.”

The latter number is simply a total of the IOUs that the government issues to itself, most notably the ones at the Social Security Trust Fund. But the “assets” in the Trust Fund at the Social Security Administration are offset by the “liabilities” at the Treasury Department. This is an empty bookkeeping gimmick, just as if you took a dollar out of your right pocket, put it in your left pocket, and left an IOU in exchange.

That being said, it is important to recognize that politicians have imposed poorly designed entitlement programs, and future spending on these programs will skyrocket far beyond current revenues. That growing gap, which is explained in this short video, is sometimes known as “unfunded liabilities.”

This number depends on a whole range of assumptions and can be measured in current dollars, constant dollars, and present value. I prefer the middle approach, which adjusts for inflation, and it’s worth noting that “unfunded liabilities” for Social Security and Medicare are more than $100 trillion.

That’s a number we should worry about, not the make-believe $4.5 trillion of IOUs that comprise part of the “gross national debt.”

Now let’s get to the most important issue. The reason we should worry about that $100 trillion number is that it is an estimate of how much the burden of spending will climb in the future. That additional spending will weaken the economy whether it is financed by borrowing or taxes.

Sort of helps to explain why entitlement reform is completely necessary if we want to keep America from a Greek-style fiscal collapse at some point in the future.

Here’s my video on the topic. In an ideal world, Republicans would not be allowed to talk about fiscal policy until they were first strapped in chairs, given a bunch of ADD medicine, and forced to watch this on automatic replay about 50 times.

Now for the all-important caveats. Yes, a nation can reach a point where debt becomes a problem. All you have to do is look at the mess in Europe to understand that point.

And I’ve shared numbers from both the Bank for International Settlements and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development to indicate that almost all nations – including the U.S. – are going to face similar problems if government policy is left on autopilot.

What I want people to realize, though, is that governments only get into that kind of mess because there’s too much spending.

Government spending is the disease. The various ways of financing that spending – taxes, borrowing, and printing money – are symptoms of the underlying disease.

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