LESSONS LEARNED #24: “You cannot lobby a politician unless he or she is for sale.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - July 29th, 2010

BUILDING A RAILROAD ain’t cheap.  It needs dump trucks of money.  Especially if it’s transcontinental.  And that’s what the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific were building.  Starting during the Civil War in 1863 (the year Vicksburg fell and Lee retreated from Gettysburg).  The Union Pacific was building west from Iowa.  And the Central pacific was building east from California. 

For the most part, Protestant, English-speaking Americans settled Texas.  Mexico had encouraged the American colonists to settle this region.  Because few Mexicans were moving north to do so.   The deal was that the colonists conduct official business in Spanish and convert to Catholicism.  They didn’t.  These and other issues soured relations between Mexico and the American Texans.  The Republic of Texas proclaimed their independence from Mexico.  America annexed Texas.  Mexico tried to get it back.  The Mexican-American War followed.  America won.  Texas became a state in 1845.  And that other Spanish/Mexican territory that America was especially interested in, California, became a state in 1850.  Hence the desire for a transcontinental railroad.

The U.S. government was very eager to connect the new state of California to the rest of America.  So they acted aggressively.  They would provide the dump trucks of money.  As America expanded, the U.S. government became the owner of more and more public land.  The sale of new lands provided a large amount of revenue for the federal government.  (Other forms of taxation (income taxes, excise taxes, etc.) grew as the amount of public lands to sell decreased.)  Land is valuable.  So they would grant the railroad companies some 44 million acres of land (i.e., land grants) for their use.  The railroad companies, then, would sell the land to raise the capital to build their railroads.  The government also provided some $60 million in federal loans.

But it didn’t end there.  The federal government came up with incentives to speed things up.  They based the amount of loans upon the miles of track laid.  The more difficult the ground, the more cash.  So, what you got from these incentives was the wrong incentive.  To lay as much track as possible on the most difficult ground they could find.  And then there were mineral rights.  The railroad would own the property they built on.  And any minerals located underneath.  So the tracks wandered and meandered to maximize these benefits.  And speed was key.  Not longevity.  Wherever possible they used wood instead of masonry.  The used the cheapest iron for track.  They even laid track on ice.   (They had to rebuild large chunks of the line before any trains would roll.)  And when the Union Pacific and Central Pacific met, they kept building, parallel to each other.  To lay more miles of track.  And get more cash from the government.

PAR FOR THE COURSE.  When government gets involved they can really mess things up.  But it gets worse.  Not only was government throwing dump trucks of American money down the toilet, they were also profiting from this hemorrhaging of public money.  As shareholders in Crédit Mobilier.

Thomas Durant of Union Pacific concocted the Crédit Mobilier Scandal.  As part of the government requirements to build the transcontinental railroad, Union Pacific had to sell stock at $100 per share.  Problem was, few believed the railroad could be built.  So there were few takers to buy the stock at $100 per share.  So he created Crédit Mobilier to buy that stock.  Once they did, they then resold the stock on the open market at prevailing market prices.  Which were well below $100 per share.  Union Pacific met the government requirements thanks to the willingness of Crédit Mobilier to buy their stock.  The only thing was, both companies had the same stockholders.  Crédit Mobilier was a sham company.  Union Pacific WAS Crédit Mobilier.  And it gets worse.

Union Pacific chose Crédit Mobilier to build their railroad.  Crédit Mobilier submitted highly inflated bills to Union Pacific who promptly paid them.  They then submitted the bills to the federal government (plus a small administration fee) for reimbursement.  Which the federal government promptly paid.  Crédit Mobilier proved to be highly profitable.  This pleased their shareholders.  Which included members of Congress who approved the overbillings as wells as additional funding for cost overruns.  No doubt Union Pacific/Crédit Mobilier had very good friends in Washington.  Including members of the Grant administration.  Until the party ended.  The press exposed the scandal during the 1872 presidential campaign.  Outraged, the federal government conducted an investigation.  But when you investigate yourself for wrongdoing you can guess the outcome.  Oh, there were some slaps on the wrists, but government came out relatively unscathed.  But the public money was gone.  As is usually the case with political graft.  Politicians get rich while the public pays the bill.

(Incidentally, the investigation did not implicate Ulysses Grant.  However, because members of his administration were implicated, this scandal tarnished his presidency.  Grant, though, was not corrupt.  He was a great general.  But not a shrewd politician.  Where there was a code of honor in the military, he found no such code in politics.  Friends used his political naivety for personal profit.  If you read Grant’s personal memoirs you can get a sense of Grant’s character.  Many consider his memoirs among the finest ever written.  He was honest and humble.  A man of integrity.  An expert horseman, he was reduced to riding in a horse and buggy in his later years.  Once, while president, he was stopped for speeding through the streets of Washington.  When the young policeman saw who he had pulled over, he apologized profusely to the president and let him go.  Grant told the young man to write him the ticket.  Because it was his job.  And the right thing to do.  For no man, even the president, was above the law.)

THE FINANCIAL WORLD fell apart in 2007.  And this happened because someone changed the definition of the American Dream from individual liberty to owning a house.  Even if you couldn’t afford to buy one.  Even if you couldn’t qualify for a mortgage.  Even, if you should get a mortgage, you had no chance in hell of making your payments.

Home ownership would be the key to American prosperity.  Per the American government.  Build homes and grow the economy.   That was the official mantra.  So Washington designed American policy accordingly.  Lenders came up with clever financing schemes to put ever more people into new homes.  And they were clever.  But left out were the poorest of the poor.  Even a small down payment on the most modest of homes was out of their range.  Proponents of these poor said this was discriminatory.  Many of the inner city poor in the biggest of cities were minority.  People cried racism in mortgage lending.  Government heard.  They pressured lenders to lend to these poor people.  Or else.  Lenders were reluctant.  With no money for down payments and questionable employment to service these mortgages, they saw great financial risk.  So the government said not to worry.  We’ll take that risk.  Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac would guarantee certain ‘risky’ loans as long as they met minimum criteria.  And they would also buy risky mortgages and get them off their books.  Well, with no risk, the lenders would lend to anyone.  They made NINJA loans (loans to people with No Income, No Job, and no Assets).  And why not?  If any loan was likely to default it was a NINJA loan.  But if Freddie or Fannie bought before the default, what did a lender care?  And even they defaulted before, Fannie and Freddie guaranteed the loan.  How could a lender lose?

Once upon a time, there was no safer loan than a home mortgage.  Why?  Because it would take someone’s lifesavings to pay for the down payment (20% of the home price in the common conventional mortgage).  And people lived in these houses.  In other words, these new home owners had a vested interested to service those mortgages.  Someone who doesn’t put up that 20% down payment with their own money, though, has less incentive to service that mortgage.  They can walk away with little financial loss.

ARE YOU GETTING the picture?  With this easy lending there was a housing boom.  Then a bubble.  With such easy money, housing demand went up.  As did prices.  So housing values soared.  Some poor people were buying these homes with creative financing (used to make the unqualified qualify for a mortgage).  We call these subprime mortgages.  They include Adjustable Rate Mortgages (ARMs).  These have adjustable interest rates.  This removes the risk of inflation.  So they have lower interest rates than fixed-rate mortgages.  If there is inflation (and interest rates go up), they adjust the interest rate on the mortgage up.  Other clever financing included interest only mortgages.  These include a balloon payment at the end of a set term of the full principal.  These and other clever instruments put people into houses who could only afford the smallest of monthly payments.  The idea was that they would refinance after an ‘introductory’ period.  And it would work as long as interest rates did not go up.  But they went up.  And house prices fell.  The bubble burst.  Mortgages went underwater (people owed more than the houses were worth).  Some people struggled to make their payments and simply couldn’t.  Others with little of their own money invested simply walked away.  The subprime industry imploded.  So what happened, then, to all those subprime mortgages?

Fannie and Freddie bought these risky mortgages.  And securitized them.  They chopped and diced them and created investment devices called Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDOs).  These are fancy bonds backed by those ‘safe’ home mortgages.  Especially safe with those Fannie and Freddie guarantees.  They were as safe as government bonds but more profitable.  As long as people kept making their mortgage payments.

But risk is a funny thing.  You can manage it.  But you can’t get rid of it.  Interest rates went up.  The ARMs reset their interest rates.  People defaulted.  The value of the subprime mortgages that backed those CDOs collapsed, making the value of the CDOs collapse.  And everyone who bought those CDOs took a hit.  Investors around the globe shared those losses. 

Those subprime loans were very risky.  Lenders would not make the loans unless someone else took that risk.  The government took that risk in the guise of Fannie and Freddie.  Who passed on that risk to the investors buying what they thought were safe investments.  Who saw large chunks of their investment portfolios go ‘puff’ into thin air.

SO WHAT ARE Freddie and Fannie exactly?  They are government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs).  They key word here is government.  Once again, you put huge piles of money and government together and the results are predictable.  In an effort to extend the ‘American Dream’ to as many Americans as possible, the federal oversight body for Freddie and Fannie lowered the minimum criteria for making those risky loans.  Even excluding an applicant’s credit worthiness from the application process (so called ‘no-doc’ loans were loans made without any documentation to prove the credit worthiness of the applicant.)  To encourage further reckless lending.  Ultimately causing the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. 

And, of course, members of Congress did well during the good times of the subprime boom.  They got large campaign contributions.  Some sweetheart mortgagee deals.  A grateful voting bloc.  And other largess from the profitable subprime industry.  Government did well.  Just as they did during the Crédit Mobilier Scandal.  And the American taxpayer gets to pay the bill.  Some things never change.  Government created both of these scandals.  As government is wont to do whenever around huge piles of money.  For when it comes to stealing from the government, someone in the government has to let it happen.  For it takes a nod and a wink from someone in power to let such massive fraud to take place. 

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FUNDAMENTAL TRUTH #24: “You cannot lobby a politician unless he or she is for sale.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - July 27th, 2010

IT’S A PROFESSION as old as time.  Politics.  Prostitution, too.

Hooker:  Hey, baby, you got girlfriend Vietnam?

Joker:    Not just this minute.

Hooker:  Well, baby, me so horny. Me so horny. Me love you long time. You party?

Joker:    Yeah, we might party. How much?

Hooker:  Fifteen dolla.

Joker:    Fifteen dollars for both of us?

Hooker:  No. Each you fifteen dolla. Me love you long time. Me so horny.

Joker:    Fifteen dollar too boo-coo. Five dollars each.

Hooker:  Me suckee-suckee. Me love you too much.

Joker:    Five dollars is all my mom allows me to spend.

Hooker:  Okay! Ten dolla each.

Joker:    What do we get for ten dollars?

Hooker:  Every’ting you want.

Joker:    Everything?

Hooker:  Every’ting.

Joker:    Well, old buddy, feel like spending some of your hard-earned money?

(From the movie Full Metal Jacket, 1987.)

In the above scene from Full Metal Jacket, Private Joker (reporter for Stars and Stripes) and Private Rafterman (photographer for Stars and Stripes) are sitting at a table outside a cafe in Da Nang.  Minding their own business.  The hooker walks up to them.  She initiates the conversation.  She tells them that for a fee she’ll have sex with them.

Please note that it is the service provider that approached the two privates.  They did not go up to random women, offering them money in exchange for sex.  Why?  Because not all women are for sale.  They know this.  It would be a waste of their time to ask random women.   And it would be rather offensive to the laywoman in the street.  Now, Marines may be killers.  But they’re polite to the indigenous population.

When you’re selling favors, the onus is on the seller to find the buyers.  They have to put the word out that they are for sale (ultra-miniskirt, low-cut tops, high heels, heavy makeup, stand on a corner, flash their ‘wares’, etc.).  Or find someone who will broker these sales for them.  A pimp, if you will.  Or a brothel madam.  Or, mamasan, as she is called in Southeast Asia.  A prostitute must initiate the process with the ‘john’ (Hey, baby, you got girlfriend Vietnam?).  Or she goes to a place where other prostitutes ply their trade to a receptive clientele (such as a brothel).

A prostitute is often a victim of circumstance.  Few women seek this life.  They’re not shopping one day when a man walks up to them and says, “Wow.  I find you beautiful and would like to pay you to have sex with me.”   To which she replies, “okay” and leaves one life to start another.  It doesn’t happen like that.   Often it is some misfortune that forces them into the business.  And once there they have but one thing of value that they can sell for subsistence; a young attractive body.  For a limited time.

THEY WEREN’T PERFECT.  The Founding Fathers had their faults.  They knew the evils of a strong central government.  And they knew the dangers of a weak central government.  John Adams wanted to build ‘wooden walls’ (i.e., a navy) to protect America.  Jefferson opposed standing armies and expensive navies.  Washington was a nationalist.  Hamilton, too.  Madison and Jefferson were more states’ rights men.  Hamilton was a capitalist and wanted a national bank.  Jefferson hated capitalism, banks, cities and Hamilton.  It was a rocky start.  They had different views about what America should be.  But the administrations of the Founding Fathers (Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Munroe) were for the most part honest.  There was partisan fighting, but political corruption was still gestating.   Our first Democratic administration would give it real life.

Government was growing.  There were more federal jobs to hand out.  And with property ownership no longer a requirement to vote, more and more voters had no skin in the game.  People were now voting to have a say in how to spend other people’s money.  You put the two together and you get political patronage and spoils.  Those who help to ‘get out the vote’ to get Democrats elected were rewarded with federal jobs.  The more you helped the better the job.  And when Andrew Jackson won the election in 1828, federal job seekers overran Washington.

It may have started with the Democrats, but soon everyone was using the spoils of an election victory to repay their most loyal supporters.  And government continued to grow.  Back then, it was just politics.  Egregious, but just politics.  Patronage and spoils turned into graft and kickbacks.  And the bigger government got, the more money poured into and out of Washington.

Soon, congressmen, senators and presidents steered legislation and/or policy in exchange for sweetheart mortgage deals, vacation junkets, campaign contributions, legal defense funds, retirement of campaign debt, libraries, etc.  They were now offering services for a fee.  And for a lot more than subsistence.  During a limited time.  Due to the circumstance of holding public office.  Now, they’re not saying “me love you long time,” but they are taking money and someone is getting screwed.  And it’s a pretty sweet deal.  The prostitute has to earn her money the hard way.  She has to put out.  A politician, on the other hand, doesn’t.  They get rich the easy way.  While the public takes it up the pooper.

PEOPLE HATE LOBBYISTS.  They hate their influence.  They hate Big Pharma, Big Agra, Big Oil, Big Finance and the other ‘Bigs’ that lobby Big Government.  But these ‘johns’ only exist because politicians are more than willing (and make it known) that they are for sale.  You gotta pay to play in Washington. 

Are we to believe that politicians are as pure as the wind-driven snow until a lobbyist corrupts them?  Yeah, right.   If you believe that be wary of anyone trying to sell you a bridge.  It’s a game.  And they write the rules.  And if you don’t play nice, they can make it pretty unpleasant for you.  Anti-business legislation, justice department probes, attorney general investigations, public attacks by administration officials, etc.  Nasty things for a business.  And costly.  Often the cost of avoiding these (i.e., playing the game) is a cheaper option.  The business that does not lobby, then, may find themselves under assault by Big Government or at a disadvantage against their competitors who do.  So they enter the fray, hedging their bets by throwing large sums of money on both sides of the aisle. 

And even though the Republican Party is supposed to be the party of Big Business, have you seen who Big Business often contributes to?  More times than not they’re in bed with the Democrats.  Who did General Electric endorse in the 2008 election?  Obama.  Why?  You tell me.  For I have no idea.  They make MRIs.  And electricity-generating windmills.  I’m not sure how they could benefit by an administration that was going to reform health care and promote green energy.  It just baffles the mind.

THE CORRUPTION CONTAGION knows no party lines.  Unabashed greed is universal.  Especially with other people’s money.  Washington has become what the Founding Fathers feared.  Big, powerful and awash in cash.  Even during record deficits.  The days of disinterested public service are long gone.  Getting to Washington has become the objective.  Not what you do when you get there.  Because if you make it to Washington, you leave it rich.  And live comfortably ever after.

And now I must apologize to prostitutes everywhere.  For they truly earn their money.  It is unfair and unjust to compare them to politicians.  And the ultimate injustice is the fact that politicians enjoy their services.  One of the perks of being in Washington.  High-priced call girls at your beckoned call.  Paid for, of course, by others.

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LESSONS LEARNED #20: “It is never a consumer that complains about ‘predatory’ pricing.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - July 1st, 2010

ECONOMIES OF SCALE and vertical integration can do two things very well.  Make industrialists rich.  And make the things they sell cheap. 

The more you make, the less each thing you make costs.  Businesses have fixed costs.  Big one time investments in plant and equipment.  Businesses have to recover these costs.  Each thing they sell has a portion of these fixed costs added to its price.  The more they sell, the less they need to add to each unit sold.  This is economies of scale.  Think of bulk goods.  Warehouse clubs.  Places where you can buy large quantities of things at lower unit prices.  You may buy an ‘economy pack’ of 3 bottles of shampoo shrink-wrapped together.  The purchase price of a 3-pack will be greater than the price of a single bottle of shampoo at your convenient corner drug store.  But the unit cost of each of the bottles in the 3-pack will be less.  You save more over time by buying 3 bottles at a time.  Spending more, then, means spending less.  In time.

Few of us buy raw materials.  Few have a need for crude oil.  Iron ore.  Coal.  Limestone.  Manganese.  But they make the stuff we buy.  A lot of things have to happen before those raw materials make it to us in those things we buy.  It has to be mined or drilled/pumped.  Transported.  Processed.  Stored.  Transported again.  Processed again.  Stored again.  Transported again.  There are many different stages between extracting raw materials from the earth and incorporating them into a final product we consumers buy.  At every stage there are costs.  And inefficiencies.  Which add to costs.  By reducing these costs along the way, the component materials used at the final manufacturing stage cost less.  This reduces the selling price of the final product.  This is what vertical integration does.  It puts everything from the extraction of raw materials to the incorporation of those processed materials into the final product for sale under control of the final user.  It brings in a high level of quality, cost containment and reduction of inefficiencies into the entire process resulting in a high quality, mass produced, inexpensive product.

Not everyone can do these things.  You have to live and breathe the industry you’re in.  You have to understand it intimately.  An industrialist at the top of his game can do this.  A politician can’t.  States trying to take control of their economy have failed.  Every time they’ve tried.  Why?  Politicians are ‘intellectuals’.  They’ve never run a business.  They only thought about it.  And, somehow, that gives them the moral authority to tamper in something they are simply unqualified to do.  And when they meddle, they destroy.  Purposely.  Or through unintended consequences.  In the process, though, they enrich themselves.  And their cronies.

ANDREW CARNEGIE WAS a brilliant entrepreneur.  After working for a railroad, he saw the future.  Railroads.  And he would build its rails.  And its bridges.  With his Keystone Bridge Company.  Which used steel and iron.  So he built his Union Mills.  Which needed pig iron.  So he built his Lucy blast furnace.  Which consumed raw material (iron, coke, limestone).  So he secured his own sources of raw materials. 

His Lucy blast furnace set world records, nearly doubling the weekly output of his steel competitors.  No one made more steel than Carnegie.  For less.  In about 20 years, he brought the price down for steel rails from $160/ton to $17/ton.  And got rich in the process.

Economies of scale.  Vertical integration.  And innovation.  Carnegie hired the best people he could find and used the latest technology.  Always improving.  Always cutting costs.  Always making steel more plentiful.  And cheaper.  His steel built a nation.  Dominated the industry.  And destroyed the competition.  Of course, that drew the attention of the government.  And they tried to break up the steel giant because it was unfair to the competition.  Who couldn’t sell steel as cheap as he could.

JOHN D. ROCKEFELLER was a brilliant entrepreneur.  After trying the oil drilling business, he saw the future.  The refining business.  For America lit the night with kerosene.  And he would provide that kerosene.  At prices that a poor man could afford.  And he did.  And he saved the whales in the process (his cheap kerosene put the whale oil business out of business).

Like Carnegie, cutting costs and production efficiencies consumed him.  He built his own kilns and used his own timber for fuel.  He made his own barrels from his own timber.  He used his own horse-drawn carts, boats, rail cars and pipelines.  He bought up competitors.  He grew to dominate the industry.  By far the biggest shipper, he got better shipping rates than his competitors.  And he constantly innovated.  When others were dumping the gasoline byproduct from refining kerosene into the river (no internal combustion engine yet), he was using it for fuel.  He hired the best talent available to find a use for every byproduct from the refining process, giving us everything from industrial lubricants to petroleum jelly (i.e., Vaseline).

His company, Standard Oil, was close to being a monopoly.  When they controlled 90% of the market kerosene was never cheaper.  He brought the price down from $0.26/gallon to $0.08/gallon.  And that was an outrage.  We can’t allow any one company to control 90% of the market.  Sure, consumers were doing well, but the higher-cost competitors could not stay in business selling at those low prices.  So the government broke up Standard Oil via antitrust legislation (the Sherman Act).  To protect the country from monopolistic practices.  And cheap kerosene, apparently.

BILL GATES WAS a brilliant entrepreneur in building Microsoft.  The personal computer (PC) was new.  You couldn’t do much with it in the early days unless you were pretty computer savvy.  But programs were available that made them great business tools (word processing and spreadsheet programs). 

IBM created the PC.  And they licensed it so others could make IBM-like machines.  IBM clones.  The PC industry chewed each other up.  But Gates did well.  Because all of these machines used his operating system (Microsoft’s Disk Operating System – DOS).  Apple developed the Macintosh (with a mouse and Graphical User Interface – GUI) but it was expensive.  Anyone who used one in college wanted to buy one.  Until they saw the price.  So they bought an IBM clone instead.  And when Gates came out with Windows, they were just as easy to use as the Macs.

Because of the higher volume of the IBM platform sold, Microsoft flourished.  Software was bundled.  New machines came preloaded with Windows.  And Internet Explorer.  And Windows Media Player.  You got a lot of bang for the buck going with a Windows-based PC.  And Windows dominated the market.  Consumers weren’t complaining.  Much.  Sure, there were things they did bitch about (glitches, drivers, viruses, etc.), but it sure wasn’t price.

Of course, Microsoft’s competitors were hurting.  They couldn’t sell their products if Microsoft was giving away a similar product free.  Because they were hurting their competitors, the government tried to break up the company with the Sherman Act. 

THE NORTHERN SECURITIES SUIT of 1902 found a holding company guilty of not yet committing a crime.  Teddy Roosevelt’s administration filed a Sherman antitrust suit against Northern Securities.  This was a holding company for Northern Pacific, Great Northern, and Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroads.  What’s a holding company?  It replaced a trust.   Which large corporations created in response to government’s attacks on large corporations.

Small competitors feared large corporations.  They could not compete against their economies of scale and vertical integration.  The little guys couldn’t sell things as cheap as the big corporations could.  So the government intervened to protect the little guy.  So they could sell at higher prices.

But businesses grow.  All big corporations started out as little guys.  And the growing process doesn’t stop.  So the big corporations had to find other ways to grow.  They formed trusts.  Then the trust-busters busted up the trusts.  The next form was the holding company. 

The trust-busters said that the big corporations, trusts and holding companies were all trying to become monopolies.  And once they eliminated all competitors, they would raise their prices and gouge the consumers.  Northern Securities never did.  But they could.  So they were guilty.  Because they might commit a crime.  One day.

ALL BUSINESS OWNERS aren’t morally ethical and honest.  But the market is, albeit cruel.  Economies of scales will always put the little guy out of business.  Sad, yes, for the little guy.  But for every little guy put out of business, millions of consumers save money.  They can buy things for less.  Which means they have more money to buy more things.  New things.  Different things.  From new little guys who now have a chance with this new surplus of purchasing power.

But when politicians get involved, consumers lose.  When they help a competitor, they help them by keeping prices high.  To keep competition ‘fair’.  For the politically connected.

Consumers never complain about low prices.  Only competitors do.  Or their employees.  Those working on whaling ships didn’t like to see the low price of Rockefeller’s kerosene.  But the new refining industry (and its auxiliaries) created far more jobs than were lost on the whaling ships.  We call it progress.  And with it comes a better life for the many.  Even if it is at the expense of the few.

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