Relevant and even prescient commentary on news, politics and the economy.

Declaring War on ISIS without Making War In Iraq or Syria

Put that way it sounds silly. I mean isn’t ISIS simply IN various parts of Iraq and Syria and wouldn’t US involvement in something like an all out attack on ISIS mean intervening in any number of civil wars? Well that depends on how smart your lawyers are (and I am only kind of smart and not a lawyer at all). But let me float a trial balloon (one fully equiped with Hellfire Missiles and Special Forces assault teams).

One. There is such a thing as the self-proclaimed Islamic State. And this sovereign state does have existing if fluid borders, that is there are parts of the territory of pre-existing states like Iraq and Syria that are now not under the physical and military and administrative control of those states. To that degree there is in fact an independent territorial based Islamic State. Moreover this IS has in very explicit fashion declared war on the United States, most recently be executing a U.S. citizen and threatening the same against his compatriot.

Which leads to this perhaps counterintuitive suggestion. Declare war on ISIS while simply allowing any territory gained in that military effort to simply be reabsorbed by the former state actors who held it. That is simply regarding any territory held by ISIS to not actually be in Iraq or Syria while allowing any and all claims to territory liberated from ISIS to revert to the states which formerly and still formally claim it. And this latter move could be itself justified by simply refusing to commit ‘boots on the ground’ to actually taking that territory as opposed to the deployment of targeted ground assaults within the territory currently controlled by the Islamic State. That is the U.S. would commit to the destruction and dismemberment of the IS while not formally taking control of any part of it. And by that token never actually waging war in ‘Iraq’ OR ‘Syria’.

Maybe this is too clever by half to be workable. But what it would conceptually do is convert ISIS into the Cheshire Cat state, simply vanishing as every piece of it is dismantled around it. Leaving nothing but the dream of a Caliphate (and being realistic an ongoing terroristic threat to both the restored Iraqi and Syrian States and the West at large).

The main conceptual difference between this effort and the Second Iraq War is that the U.S. by and large wouldn’t own the Pottery Barn where the breakage occured. Because by donning the proper set of logical blinders we could make the case that we weren’t ‘really’ engaged in war on current Iraqi or Syrian soil. And if those state actors had a beef with us waging war on what they consider to be their sovereign territory the U.S. answer would be simple: “Okay take back that territory an inch and a mile at a time and raise your own flag over the liberated cities and villages”. Because if that village or region or province is no longer under IS control it would not be at war with the U.S. And as such there would perhaps not ever be such a thing as the “U.S. Occupation of the Islamic State”.

I am not saying there would not be complications. After all the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire after WWI delivered us right into WWII via the new Balkan States and even more so into the current I-P mess verging on horror, the ‘War to End All Wars’ is maybe the most ironic slogan ever invented. Still it is clear that the U.S. needs to put paid to ISIS while having some plausible deniability of actually occupying parts of war torn Iraq and Syria. And simply defining the Islamic State as being such and so a proper and plausible target of a Constitutional Declaration of War seems a reasonable way of slicing the logical knot here.

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Damn. Just plain DAMN. Can anyone on Long Island come to this dog’s rescue?

Earlier this week I posted a post titled “Blackie, in Wantaugh, NY.”   Several people—Noni Mausa, Yves Smith (on Naked Capital), Bill H, and Dan Crawford (who made the post a Featured Story)—tried to help out. On Wednesday, Bill reported that Blackie had an approved adopter and would be picked up at the Town of Hempstead Animal Shelter in Wantaugh on Long Island later that day.  Hurray!

But today Bill received this email, which he forwarded to me:

Hi Bill-

We just found out this morning that the approved adopter can no longer adopt Blackie.  It would be great if you could continue to share & post him.  Are you the writer for the 2 blogs below?  If so, could you update them to say his adopter backed out?

Thanks so much,


Town of Hempstead Animal Shelter

3320 Beltagh Avenue

Wantagh, New York 11793

Tel: 516-785-5220

Fax: 516-785-0129



HAPPY UPDATE: Thanks to everyone who helped out on this–including, most certainly, Yves Smith, Noni Mausa, Bill H–and the kind dog lover who adopted Blackie.

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3 Potentially Ominous ideas from Yellen’s Speech

Janet Yellen gave a speech today at the Jackson Hole conference. Here are 3 parts from her speech that are noteworthy and somewhat ominous…

1. “For example, as I discussed earlier, if downward nominal wage rigidities created a stock of pent-up wage deflation during the economic downturn, observed wage and price pressures associated with a given amount of slack or pace of reduction in slack might be unusually low for a time. If so, the first clear signs of inflation pressure could come later than usual in the progression toward maximum employment. As a result, maintaining a high degree of monetary policy accommodation until inflation pressures emerge could, in this case, unduly delay the removal of accommodation, necessitating an abrupt and potentially disruptive tightening of policy later on.

If the Fed gets too far behind the curve (I think they are already way behind the curve), we could see a dramatic situation where the Fed must react by raising the nominal base rate abruptly. That would be dramatic.

2. “Second, wage developments reflect not only cyclical but also secular trends that have likely affected the evolution of labor’s share of income in recent years. As I noted, real wages have been rising less rapidly than productivity, implying that real unit labor costs have been declining, a pattern suggesting that there is scope for nominal wages to accelerate from their recent pace without creating meaningful inflationary pressure. However, research suggests that the decline in real unit labor costs may partly reflect secular factors that predate the recession, including changing patterns of production and international trade, as well as measurement issues. If so, productivity growth could continue to outpace real wage gains even when the economy is again operating at its potential.

I think she is wrong here. Productivity is already constrained against the effective demand limit. So productivity will not grow as she says. If labor share was to fall further (productivity rising faster than real wages), that would further constrain productivity putting downward pressure on real wage gains.

The better scenario would be real wages rising faster than productivity, since productivity is already constrained. Then we run into the ramifications of decreased profit rates for firms and their willingness to share those profits. This scenario has led to many economic contractions in the past.

3. “Of course, if economic performance turns out to be disappointing and progress toward our goals proceeds more slowly than we expect, then the future path of interest rates likely would be more accommodative than we currently anticipate.”

This scenario would be dramatic. She is describing a situation that the economy starts to form a possible recession as is happening in Europe now. As a reaction, the Fed would loosen projected monetary policy, basically keeping the Fed rate stuck at the ZLB. The result would be going into the next recession with a zero lower bound… again. There would be a lot soul-searching at the Fed or a lot of finger-pointing.

So if the economy grows fast, the Fed will tighten and markets will react. If the economy slows down like Europe, monetary policy will loosen again and we fall back to the ZLB. How does the Fed steer the boat away from a storm? Grit your teeth and tie yourself to the mast. There are ominous hints of high-drama in the future.

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Profits without Prosperity

Returning off shored money to the US was a way to create jobs politicians promised and promoted back in 2004.  But not so much was the result.  From Forbes:

Many in Congress are argueing that corporations are leaving billions of dollars abroad at the expense of bringing it home to invest in jobs. However, says Douglas Shackelford, tax and accounting professor at the MBA program at the University of North Carolina, “there’s been no compelling evidence that it produced jobs. It is true that multinationals are sitting on massive amounts of cash offshore and they brought it back in they’d be hit with as much as a 35% cut right off the bat. As a result of that rate, the U.S. is getting no revenues from those companies. The way the 2004 law was written, you had to demonstrate that you were going to hire more workers in the U.S. Instead, they paid out more in dividends and bought back more company shares.”

Beginning again in 2009 to the present repatriation of money held outside the US by American companies in Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Programs (OVDP) was also touted as good for growing the economy. (This of course does not address transfer pricing and the current trend to inversions).

The Harvard Business Review describes where another whole lot of money is being spent…stock buy backs.

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Some background on Ferguson, Missouri

Charles Reid explains a bit on some background for the news in Missouri:

Quite properly, journalistic reaction to events in Ferguson, Missouri, has focused on the militarization of the police, on the role of racism in the killing of unarmed African-American men, and on the political disenfranchisement that allows communities like Ferguson to operate in obvious defiance of public sentiment.

But there is another element peculiar to Missouri politics that must have light shed upon it. That is the sharp right-ward turn conservative politics in that State has taken.

I’ve got news for Missouri’s political class. They need to stop reviving the odious, discredited ideology of the Southern slaveocracy. They must instead return to reality and address the social crisis Ferguson represents. For in truth, African-Americans face substantial obstacles in Missouri. The four-year high-school graduation rate for African-Americans is 76 percent (as of 2009/2010). (The white graduation rate is 89 percent). The poverty rate for African-Americans is 27.7 percent (as of 2007/2011). The white poverty rate for the same period is 12.1 percent. The unemployment rate of African-Americans (2008/2012) is 18.0 percent. (For white Missourians it is 7.3 percent). The incarceration rate for African-Americans (as of June 30, 2012) is 38.2 percent.

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Bullshit to cash ratio

Dan here…Yves Smith reminds us on the announcement of a reported ‘biggest fine ever’ on Bank America that the deals, fines, and reporting on mortgage misconduct need careful interpretation. And a skeptical attitude. (partially re-posted…worth the trip over)

by Yves Smith

Bank Settlement Grade Inflation: High Bullshit to Cash Ratio in $17 Billion Bank of America Deal

Over the last year, the Administration has entered into a series of bank settlements over various types of mortgage misconduct. The sudden rush to generate headlines from misdeeds that have been covered in the media in lurid detail during and after the crisis looks an awful lot like an effort to stem continuing criticism over the abject failure to punish banks and more important, their execs for blowing up the global economy for fun and profit, particularly since the Dems are at serious risk of losing control of the Senate in the Congressional midterms.

But as much as the media dutifully amplifies the multibillion headline value of these pacts, we’ve reminded readers again and again that all of these agreements have substantial non-cash portions which are ludicrously treated as if they have the same value as cold, hard cash. As we’ve reminded readers often, it’s critical to keep your eye on the real money, since the rest of the total is almost without exception things the bank would have done anyhow (or even better, giving banks credit for costs actually borne by others, like modifying mortgages that the bank merely services, meaning the bank gets a credit for a writedown imposed on an investor).

A telling trend in this rash of deal-making is that the bullshit to cash ratio has been rising. Notice the pattern:

November 2013 JP Morgan settlement of FHFA, other Federal, and certain state mortgage claims. $13 billion headline value. $9 billion in cash. Bullshit to cash ratio: 44.4%

July 2014 Citigroup mortgage settlement over misrepresenting residential mortgage backed securities. $7 billion headline value. Cash portion $4.5 billion. Bullshit to cash ratio: 55.6%

August 2014 Bank of America settlement $17 billion headline value. Cash portion $9 billion. Bullshit to cash ratio: 88.9%

Now admittedly, none of these approach the mother of all bullshit settlements, namely, the Federal/49 state mortgage settlement of early 2012, whose real purpose was to take pesky state attorneys generals out of the business of getting too inquisitive about mortgage chain of title issues, which Georgetown Law professor Adam Levitin more colorfully called “securitization fail”…

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European Doldrums

by Joseph Joyce

European Doldrums

European economies are faltering.  The German economy contracted in the second quarter, as did those of France and Italy. Growth in Spain and the Netherlands was not enough to offset the slowdown in the Eurozone’s largest members.  An escalation in the confrontation with Russia would send shockwaves rippling from the Ukraine westwards that world worsen the situation.

The continuing slump confirms Jay C. Shambaugh’s observation (which appears in his paper in the new volume, What Have We Learned? Macroeconomic Policy After the Crisis) that much of what happened during the global financial crisis was consistent with standard international macroeconomics. For example, countries with flexible exchange rates were able to adjust more easily to the shock than those with fixed rates. Shambaugh also compares unemployment rates in the Eurozone with those across the U.S., and notes that while both the range and standard deviation of unemployment rates began to fall in the U.S. in 2010, the dispersion of national unemployment rates continued in the Eurozone. Labor conditions improved in some countries, but not others. Shambaugh cites this as evidence that there is a lack of adequate shock absorbers, such as labor mobility, within the Eurozone.

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Understanding Piketty, part 3

Part 3 of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century is the longest section of the book (230 pages out of 577), providing his analysis of inequality at the level of individuals. Notably, Piketty largely avoids the use of the familiar Gini index because, in his view, it obscures the issue by combining the effects of inequality based on income with those of inequality based on wealth. He treats the two sources of inequality separately throughout this analysis.

The first point Piketty emphasizes is one regular readers will be familiar with from my previous discussions of the Crédit Suisse wealth reports: Wealth is always more unequally distributed than income. The disparity is stark (p. 244):

…the upper 10 percent of the labor income distribution generally receives 25-30 percent of total labor income, whereas the top 10 percent of the capital income distribution always owns more than 50 percent of all wealth (and in some societies as much as 90 percent). Even more strikingly, perhaps, the bottom 50 percent of the wage distribution always receives a significant share of total labor income (generally between one-quarter and one-third), or approximately as much as the top 10 percent), whereas the bottom 50 percent of the wealth distribution owns nothing at all, or almost nothing (always less than 10 percent and usually less than 5 percent of total wealth, or one-tenth as much as the wealthiest 10 percent).  One finding from his data which impressed me is that the inequality of wealth is virtually the same in all age cohorts, refuting the view that advanced industrialized societies are riven by inter-generational warfare (pp. 245-6). In other words, Baby Boomers may be less wealthy than their parents, but their incomes are just as unequally distributed, on average, and will continue to be so after they build up a few more assets and retire.

For my American readers, it is worth noting that Piketty claims that the United States today (meaning 2010) has the highest level of wage inequality ever seen in history, with 35% going to the top 10% and only 25% going to the bottom 50%. If current trends continue, though obviously an iffy proposition, the share of the top 10% would rise to 45% vs. just 20% for the bottom 50% (Table 7.1). In terms of wealth inequality the U.S. has as of 2010 almost reached the astronomical levels only seen by Europe circa 1910, with the top 10% owning 72% of all wealth, versus a 90% share in 1910 Europe (p.257). As this is survey-based data, Piketty says that 75% is a more likely figure, since surveys understate the top income and wealth shares. The bottom 50% of Americans own just 2% of the country’s wealth. As I noted before, if r>g, this concentration of wealth is likely to become even more uneven over time.

Piketty then turns to the evolution of inequality over the course of the 20th century. He takes the French case and the U.S. case as representatives of “two worlds,” one where inequality is largely caused by differentials in capital income (France) and one where it is caused more by wage inequality.

In France in 1910, the top 10% received over 45% of total income from both labor and capital, whereas its share of labor income was under 30%. Over the course of World War II, the share of the top decile (10%) dropped by about 15 percentage points, which rose and fell between 1945 and 1982, but since then is on the upswing once again (Figure 8.1). Wage inequality has been much more stable for France from 1910 to 2010. The higher you go in the income hierarchy, particularly within the top 1%, income from capital becomes more and more important, fully 60% of the income of the top .01%  of the French population (Figure 8.4). Piketty points out that while the upswing in capital income since 1982 does not yet appear large (only a few percentage points), it is built on an increase of capital as a percentage of national income, of inherited wealth, that will cause capital income to explode in the near future.

In the United States, we see the same decline in the income share of the top decile after 1940 as in France, but unlike France, since 1980 the United States has seen the share of the top 10% fully restored (Figure 8.5). Moreover, the vast majority of that recovery in the wealthy’s share of income is due solely to the increasing income share going to the top 1% (Figure 8.6). Behind this is an increase in what he calls “supersalaries,” the vast majority (60-70%) of which come from top managers and less than 5% from superstars in sports, acting, and the arts. Of course, though the route is different from that of France, it again causes an increase in capital’s share of national income, making it likely that inherited wealth will rise in importance in the United States as well.

What caused this explosion of labor income inequality in the United States? Piketty cites several factors. First, he highlights the findings of Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz that wage inequality began to grow in the 1980s, “at precisely the moment when for the first time the number of college graduates stops growing, or at any rate grows much more slowly than before” (p. 306). Second, institutions matter in the labor market. The biggest factor holding down the low end of wages in the United States is the low level of the minimum wage, which peaked in 1969 at $10.10 in 2013 dollars (p. 309).

However, these factors do not explain what is going on at the very top of the wage distribution, according to Piketty. One piece of evidence is that the supermanager phenomenon is a characteristic of the Anglo-Saxon countries after 1980, whereas there are only very small increases for the top 1% in Continental European countries or Japan (Figures 9.2-9.4). But another important point is that, among the English-speaking countries, the United States has the largest increase in the income of the top 1%, and the same is true for the income share of the top 0.1% of incomes (Figures 9.5-9.6). So, something is going on specifically in the United States. It is not, however, that there is some fantastically higher level of productivity growth in the U.S. All of the countries considered are at the world’s technological frontier; indeed, the evidence suggests that telecommunications infrastructure and cost are worse in the United States than many other industrialized countries.

Instead, what appears to account for the sharply divergent incomes of supermanagers are the difficulty of determining the marginal productivity of top managers (Piketty cites evidence that firms with the highest-paid executives do not better than those with lower-paid executives); the ability of top managers to “set their own salaries,” for example by appointing the compensation committees that will judge them; and, as Part 4 will show, the decrease in top marginal tax rates and the change in compensation norms related to that (pp. 334-5).

Piketty then turns to inequality in capital ownership, beginning with the treasure trove of data compiled in France since 1790. One of his most amazing findings is that in France, despite the 1789 Revolution, the inequality of wealth increased throughout the 19th century, to the point where the top 1% owned 60% of all wealth on the eve of World War I (Figure 10.1). As noted before, the World Wars, the Great Depression, and higher taxation brought about a dramatic fall by 1970 in the share of of both the top 10% (to 60%) and the top 1% (20%). Here, too, the data yield a striking finding: essentially none of this went to the bottom 50% of the wealth distribution, but was redistributed downward only to those below the top 10% but in the top 50% (p. 342). This “patrimonial middle class,” as Piketty calls it, has largely maintained its wealth share, with the top 10% and top 1% gaining a few percentage points from their 1970 low point.

Contrasting with France and other European countries for which there is reasonable wealth inequality data, the United States has seen a stronger recovery of the top shares of wealth holders, and in fact U.S. wealth inequality passed European wealth inequality in the mid-1950s, and has been higher ever since. In none of these countries, however, has wealth inequality returned to its highest levels. Piketty has three main explanations for why we have not (yet) seen a return to 1910 levels of wealth inequality. First, there simply hasn’t been enough time to rebuild from the 1945 low point; indeed, wealth inequality did not even start increasing again until the 1970s in most industrialized countries. Second, the decline in wealth inequality was accompanied and intensified by a sharp increase in taxation on capital. Third, there was a high rate of economic growth for thirty years after 1945. However, all these factors may reverse in this century. 1945, obviously, is steadily receding from view. Tax competition may well spell the end of capital taxation. Finally the slowdown of demographic growth will reduce economic growth as well, exacerbating the key r>g relationship.

Piketty then turns to inheritance, again with data going back to 1790. Here his foil is economist Franco Modigliani, who posited that people save in order to finance their retirement, but bequeath essentially 0 wealth. Piketty finds that “the desire to perpetuate a family fortune has always played a central role” in savings decisions (p. 392). As evidence, he points out that “annuitized wealth” (non-heritable, such as Social Security but not a 401-k account) makes up a tiny fraction of private wealth (under 5% in France, and 15-20% in “English-speaking countries, where pension funds are more developed”). In other words, the desire to leave a bequest to one’s heirs is the predominant fact behind large-scale savings behavior.

Piketty contends that a society dominated by inherited wealth becomes less democratic over time. Not only do the wealthy have increased mechanisms to influence political outcomes, but unearned income is an “affront” to the meritocratic story we tell ourselves. If high incomes are not based on merit, an important justification for this inequality disappears. He goes on to note that “rent” is not originally a pejorative term (as in, for example, “monopoly rent”). If capital is used in production, it yields income, and this is not due to monopoly and cannot be “solved” by greater competition. As Piketty says, universal suffrage [which in the 19th century had often been posed as fatal to the economy – KT] “ended the legal domination of politics by the wealthy. But it did not abolish the economic forces capable of producing a society of rentiers” (p. 424).

I have left out some of the technical detail of Piketty’s argument, but one more point here needs emphasizing. As he shows (Figure 11.12), inheritance flows are increasing in Europe, and have been since 1980. The situation is not quite as bad in the United States, because the U.S. population is still growing, while Europe’s is stagnating. However, long-term forecasts point to an eventual slowdown in population growth in the United States as well, in which case inherited wealth would emerge just as strongly as it already has in Europe.

Piketty’s final points refer to global dimensions of inequality of wealth. His argument here is that while most people’s instinct is to object less to entrepreneurial fortunes than to inherited ones, in fact there is less difference between the two that meets the eye. This is because, he argues, the largest fortunes are able to command the highest rates of return. He gives the example of the fortunes of Bill Gates, who obviously worked to build Microsoft, and that of Lillian Bettencourt, the heir of the L’Oréal fortune, “who never worked a day in her life” (p. 440). As it turns out, from 1990 to 2010, both saw their wealth increase at by a factor of 12.5 times in that period. Large fortunes command the highest rate of return. However, the data Piketty presents do not fully support this. Gates’ fortune was twice that of Bettencourt in 1990 and 2010, yet his rate of return was no more than hers. Furthermore, when Piketty reports on the returns made by sovereign wealth funds, we can see that Abu Dhabi’s, the world’s largest, worth more than all U.S. university endowments combined, nonetheless had lower earnings than did Harvard, Princeton, and Yale on their endowments. I think there is much merit to his overall claim, but it would appear to be a little more complicated than he lets on.

Last but not least, a couple of international wealth quick hits. First, will sovereign wealth funds own the world? No, but they could wind up amassing 10-20% of global capital by 2030 or 2040, which would be a much greater percentage of liquid global assets. Second, will China own the world? The short answer is no. Third, why do rich countries so frequently have negative asset positions? Are these counterbalanced by positive asset positions in poorer countries overall? The answer to this last question is no, so the answer to the previous question is that so much wealth has been diverted to tax havens, it makes the rich countries look poor, even though they aren’t. Indeed, even the relatively low estimate of tax haven assets by Piketty’s colleague Gabriel Zucman comes to more than twice the negative asset position of the rich countries.

This long section of the book is the necessary set-up for Part Four, where Piketty takes on still more received theories, and proposes his own recommendations for what can be done about inequality. I will turn to those questions in my next post.

Cross-posted at Middle Class Political Economist.

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Arkansas Republican Senate Candidate Tom Cotton Wants to Require Employers to Provide Employees With Multiple Healthcare Insurance Choices. Seriously.

[T]here is probably no one more gung ho for Obamacare repeal than [Senate Republican nominee] Tom Cotton. He talks about it all the time. So he obviously would roll back the Arkansas version of the state’s Medicaid expansion, right?

Well, he has consistently refused to say. And in a new interview this week, Cotton was pressed on this question, and he served up pure gibberish:

REPORTER: What happens to those people who enrolled either on Obamacare or on the private option in Arkansas? They gonna be stranded?

COTTON: We’ll see what we can do in terms of reforming it, and potentially protecting some of the people who have already received some of the benefits. But what we want to do is ensure people have control over their own health care choices…that’s why we start over in health care reform, broadly speaking, not just with Obamacare, and get those decisions out of the hands of Washington.

Greg Sargent, Washington Post, yesterday

Yup. Formerly-uninsured Arkansans, whether because they couldn’t afford insurance or had a preexisting medical condition and were categorically precluded from purchasing it, who now have healthcare insurance thanks to Obamacare, are demanding a return to the control they had over their own health care options: deciding which hospital emergency room they should visit, and then own several thousand dollars to, because they had no other access to medical care.

But, okay, let’s given Cotton his due. While some, mostly large, employers do give their employers some control over their own health care choices, by giving them two or more insurance-coverage options, many, many employers that provide coverage as part of their employee compensation offer only a single carrier’s policies. So it’s nice that what he wants to do is ensure that people—presumably, including people whose coverage is employer-based; after all, they fit the definition of “people”–have control over their own health care choices.

But I’m not sure the Chamber of Commerce agrees that employers should be required to return to their employees the control they had over their own health care options—unless, of course, that proposal is taken literally; the control most employees had over their own health care options is the same as the control employees now have.

But if Cotton is proposing some actual change, something that would ensure (his word, remember) that people, including the ones whose healthcare insurance is employer-based, have control over their own health care choices, I’m not sure how he proposes to accomplish this by getting those decisions out of the hands of Washington.

I hope Sen. Mark Pryor, his opponent, asks him, and passes along the answer. But, apparently, he’s not kidding when he says he’s proposing that we start over in health care reform, broadly speaking, not just with Obamacare.

This is broadly speaking, alright.

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