Explaining the government’s response to the financial crisis

Much of the commentary about the financial crisis in the general media is little more than superstition — recommendations like the 14th century efforts to control the Plague by killing dogs (which, of course, made it worse). 

Here are two excerpts from the professional economics literature, brief insights into our true situation.  Plus two powerful recommendations:  sustained fiscal stimulus and global coordination of economic policy.  We’re doing the first, on too-small a scale and in a sloppy fashion.  We are not doing the second, an error which might undo all the efforts of the world’s governments.

(1)  Excerpt from the Drobny Global Monitor, Andres Drobny, 30 November 2009:

Monetary policy should help ensure that liquidity is maintained, and pot holes like Dubai and other busts that are encountered do not spread systemically. Easy money is designed to prevent a cascade of failure sin an environment of falling asset values combined with high private sector debt loads. It may not, however, be at all effective in stimulating additional aggregate demand in such circumstances. When real returns on physical assets are low, easy money can’t really provide much of an incentive to boost physical investment spending. It is thus more of a support package and seems unlikely to provide much of an economic boost.

Fiscal policy, in contrast, can provide a direct boost to spending, making up for deficient spending in the private sector.

(2)  The protectionist temptation: Lessons from the Great Depression for today“, Barry Eichengreen and Douglas Irwin, 17 March 2009 — Excerpt:

This finding has important implications for policy makers responding to the Great Recession of 2009. The message for today would appear to be “to avoid protectionism, stimulate.” But how?

In the 1930s, stimulus meant monetary stimulus. The case for fiscal stimulus was neither well understood nor generally accepted. Monetary stimulus benefited the initiating country but had a negative impact on its trading partners, as shown by Eichengreen and Sachs (1985). The positive impact on its neighbours of the faster growth induced by the shift to “cheap money” was dominated by the negative impact of the tendency for its currency to depreciate when it cut interest rates. Thus, stimulus in one country increased the pressure for its neighbours to respond in protectionist fashion.

Today the problem is different because the policy instruments are different. In addition to monetary stimulus, countries are applying fiscal stimulus to counter the Great Recession. Fiscal stimulus in one country benefits its neighbours as well. The direct impact through faster growth and more import demand is positive, while the indirect impact via upward pressure on world interest rates that crowd out investment at home and abroad is negligible under current conditions. When a country applies fiscal stimulus, other countries are able to export more to it, so they have no reason to respond in a protectionist fashion.

The problem, to the contrary, is that the country applying the stimulus worries that benefits will spill out to its free-riding neighbours. Fiscal stimulus is not costless – it means incurring public debt that will have to be serviced by the children and grandchildren of the citizens of the country initiating the policy. Insofar as more spending includes more spending on imports, there is the temptation for that country to resort to “Buy America” provisions and their foreign equivalents. The protectionist danger is still there, in other words but, insofar as the policy response to this slump is fiscal rather than just monetary, it is the active country, not the passive one, that is subject to the temptation.

But if the details of the problem are different, the solution is the same. Now, as in the 1930s, countries need to coordinate their fiscal and monetary measures. If some do and some don’t, the trade policy consequences could again be most unfortunate.


If you are new to this site, please glance at the archives below.  You may find answers to your questions in these.

Please share your comments by posting below.  Per the FM site’s Comment Policy, please make them brief (250 words max), civil, and relevant to this post.  Or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

For more information from the FM site

To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar.  Of esp relevance to this topic:

Posts on the FM site about economics — theory and practice:

  1. The greatness of John Maynard Keynes, our only guide in this crisis, 4 December 2008
  2. About the state of economic science, and advice from a famous economist, 8 December 2008
  3. “A depression is for capitalism like a good, cold douche.”, 17 December 2008
  4. Words of wisdom about the global recession, from the greatest economist of our era, 29 December 2008
  5. A very important article by an expert, discussing the necessary next step to solve the financial crisis, 17 February 2009
  6. Economic theory as a guiding light for government action in this crisis, 10 March 2009

18 thoughts on “Explaining the government’s response to the financial crisis”

  1. I’m glad to see a post that “gets it.” Key insights that need to be more widely shared and understood. One can find similar thoughts in the New York Times Op Eds of Paul Krugman.

  2. This is a debt and solvancy problem that has been building for 30 years now.

    For background and an explanation of how this works you can go no further than Steve Keen, Austrlia’s (I’d argue one of World’s) greatest economists. Who was one of the few to warn beforehand what would happen.

    His latest post (http://www.debtdeflation.com/blogs/) follows on from his famous “Roving Cavaliers of Debt” article (http://www.debtdeflation.com/blogs/2009/01/31/therovingcavaliersofcredit/) is a MUST read if you want to understand the mechanisms of what happened.

    He explains the technical mechanism (built on Minsky’s work, the US’s greatest economist).

    I added the poltical social argument in a post there:

    “Yep the baby boomers have sacrificed their children and grandchildren by borrowing from the future. But they have (in much of the Anglo world) stolen from the past as well, by underinvesting (and undermaintaining) public structures and institutions.

    The UK is one poster child (the US is the other, with Australia trailing but trying hard to catch up), e.g. 30 years of underinvestment in energy means that, since the North Sea oil and gas is running out (now, like Australia, a net importer of oil, plus now an importer of gas!) UK energy supplies are on a knife edge .. tipping towards the ‘fall of a cliff’ side.

    We (in Austrlia) are not so hot either. Underinvestment in (example) electric supplies means that most of SE Australia is steadily moving to shortage. Plus the only investment we will ever make is In more coal.

    You can apply this to other public investment areas: water, education, public transport .. etc, etc, etc.

    Sadly the boomers strategy of dying off after having a great party and leaving the mess behind for the kids to sort out has not worked out quite so well.

    Another way of looking at: we now are realising the impacts of 30 years of class and generational warfare.

    I say this because my thesis is that neo-liberal economics was never meant to be a ‘true’ economic theory, rather just a fig leaf for class warfare (which they won), particularly the pushing of the ‘rentier’ and speculator classes. This is proved by the history of its development since 1970, with (e.g) Friedman (et al) jumping on the Chilean bandwagon after the Military takeover. Torture is good if it means someone makes millions.

    Rentiers and speculators abhor democracy and either work hard to destroy it (e.g. Italy and Germany pre WW2, Chile in the 70’s, etc, etc) or subvert it through corruption (e.g. Japan, US, UK and of course Australia, etc).

    The ‘rentier’ support argument can easily be proved by examples such as the fuss over the (Australian) CPRS, vs the non argument over the 1980’s/90’s (Austrlian) tariff cuts. The first hits some rentiers the second destroyed manufacturing (which is fundamentally entrepreneurial and with all those awful unionists as well). Of course the CPRS has now been distorted so much it now actually rewards rentiers while hammering public transport, hospitals, etc and of course you and me.

    The generational warfare argument comes from their strategy of divide and conquer, paying off the middle class boomers by sacrificing their kids.

    As a historical lesson Adam Smith abhorred rentiers, he actually didn’t use the term ‘blood sucking vampire squids’ but he meant the same thing in more polite language.

    So the sad thing is that Steve is perfectly technically correct, but it means nothing. This is a political argument and the academics (and things like the various ‘think’ tanks) he rails against are just ‘useful idiots’ or ‘fellow travellers’ or ‘paid wh*r*s’ for a socio-political agenda.

    Not until there is collapse that is, and that is a 50:50 argument. Historically there is as much a chance of an oppressive totalitarian society as there is re-building. Hmm I’m very rich, do we use the army and terror to keep the proles in line or do we change and lose our money …. Hmmm. Maybe a 90:10 argument.

    Take the Great Depression, the fascist/communist societies succeeded far more than liberal/democratic societies for a long time, so much so that democracy virtually disappeared around the World. Australia was one that very nearly went under, fortunately Monash was still around then and scotched it. And the US as well. In both countries there were well funded conspiracies to take over the Govt, narrowly avoided.

    So, in I give it a very few years until crisis, the Australian Govt will either embrace Steve … or lock him up.”

    Sadly the US path (though you know my long term optimism) is straight on the “lock them up and lets make a killing mode”. And there is no FDR (who was a class traitor to the patricians) waiting in the wings to ride to the rescue of ordinary people now.

    Plus the US is a very,very warlike nation. Thus there is a danger of not a soft, quiet collapse like the UK or USSR but a “going out with bang” collapse.
    FM reply: As I have written before, your last sentence is important. When the US hits the ropes, will we see our massive military machine as a solution? I doubt it, as nukes are the world’s great equalizers. But it’s a concern. God knows we’ve certainly become a warlike nation.

    “Yep the baby boomers have sacrificed their children and grandchildren by borrowing from the future.”

    Not really. It is not possible to shift financial assets (debt or assets) across generations, as they net out. The only wealth that moves through time is real property. It’s too complex to discuss here. See the work of economists such as Laurence J. Kotlikoff and Jagadeesh Gokhale.

    More accurately, the boomers relied on promises made by boomer politicians, which will be broken by the next generation’s politicians. How well this process is managed will determine much of America’s future.

  3. When the dollar will be abandoned all proponents of the chip/easy/funny money will not see their partial responsibility in that outcome.
    FM reply: Agreed. They will say it was unavoidable, unpredictable, and not their fault.

  4. vvts, see I believe Robert Fisk’s article. He is a great journalist and the Independent checked it out very carefully.

    The US dollar is gone, not today, not in a controlled and positive way., but in a near future messy/ugly way

    As a matter of sheer survival (economic as well as geo political) other countries (the Fisk list was: France (=Germany =the Euro), Russia, China (both facing the US gun at the moment), Brazil (facing another US gun), Japan (now that is a surprise), Saudi Arabia (facing the stated threat of US allowed Israel bombing them = why they just bought the S-400 system from Russia = an airforce destroyer).

    So here is the bad news, to save themselves they HAVE to de-couple to either save their own economies and/or save themselves from US led/sponsered/encouraged war/destabilisation/terrorism.

    Yep, the US elite is now at war factually/defacto/economically/sponsered/etc with everyone now. Look at AFRICACOM’s latest effort recently if you want hard proof.

    The only people who can save the US is the ordinary US people, because the elites have gone gaga.
    FM reply: I strongly agree with your last sentence, the essential insight to understand America’s situation. However, the situation of the US dollar is more complex than you imply.

    First, another leg down to the US (or global) recession would probably pushes the US dollar up, as the first phase did in Q4 of 2008. Our trade deficit shrinks, global debt repayment (much in US dollars) requires dollars, and there is a flight to safety (however illogical you might believe that to be).

    Second, it is possible that the major central banks will manage a slow andn orderly decline of the dollar. Economic impacts are largely a function of the rate of change.

    “see I believe Robert Fisk’s article”

    Do you believe in the Easter Bunny as well? The Robert Fish article you refer to is, I assume, “The demise of the dollar“, The Independent, 6 October 2009 — “In a graphic illustration of the new world order, Arab states have launched secret moves with China, Russia and France to stop using the US currency for oil trading.” Fisk cited little more than barfloor rumors, which did not make much sense. In the 2 months since publication neither Fisk nor anyone else has cited any corroborating evidence for this outlandish theory.

    I recommend that you find better sources of information.

  5. Great set of posts, OldSkeptic, particularly the Steve Keen piece. Coincides with the continuing evolution of my own (solely empirical) analysis.

    The news reports that the US economy is getting better are very badly overstated. Barring major changes in the current US political/economic situation (which are not likely as Congress and the US banking system continue to become less flexible) the situation starting in Sept/Oct 2010 looks very dicey.
    FM reply: I think a more accurate statement is that the current situation is difficult to understand. The reports that the US and global economies are recovering are certainly correct, almost totally the result of government fiscal and monetary stimulus — which are wearing off. There are some, but few, signs that private sector activity (such as business and household investment) has restarted to drive a recovery.

    Economic data is distorted by the massive stimulus programs. Also, the seasonal adjustments are distorted by the Q4 collapse — which creates large upward adjustments to current numbers. More broadly, we have moved beyond the boundaries of conventional economic theory into a situation with no useful historical precedents. We’re sailing through a night with no stars or moon to guide us.

    All we know is that another leg down to the recession would be very bad.

  6. Here: Daniele Besomi’s website is an economics link site. Soon, boning up on economic theory will be all the rage.

    I find it interesting how heretofore fringe theories, like Chartalism, and Minsky, are now getting serious consideration. Unfortunately, I’m afraid this is tantamount to the Captain asking the waiting staff if they have any input as to how the hundred foot gash in the ship’s hull might be conveniently repaired. You know, just to cover all the bases.
    Nevertheless running huge fiscal deficits and then monetizing them is the primary(indeed, only) way to re-inflate an economy according to the Chartalists. This is exactly opposite to monetarist theory. Even Stiglitz argues that monetarism stops working near zero interest/inflation.

    I suspect it may work backwards in a deflation. Impossible to test due to the Zero Interest Bound problem. International co-ordination is a nice concept, but you can only serve one master at a time. If serendipity makes both masters want the same thing simultaneously, great, but we will go it alone if we have to. Nothing personal, this is business. If international coordination means we all agree on which theory we’re going to embrace, and we all try the experiment simultaneously, that’s a good idea compared to chaotic experiments running at cross purposes. It’s an extra good idea if we all choose the right theory.
    FM reply: I don’t think much of this is correct.

    (1) “Even Stiglitz argues that monetarism stops working near zero interest/inflation.”

    He is not a monetarist (see Wikipedia).

    (2) “heretofore fringe theories, like … Minsky, are now getting serious consideration. … this is tantamount to the Captain asking the waiting staff if they have any input”

    I disagree. Minsky is not at all like a waiter; he is a respected economists whose theory has been proven to be true. The passage of time produces evidence, which tests theories.

    (3) “This is exactly opposite to monetarist theory.”

    There have been few monetarist economists in a doctrinaire sense for many years (see Wikipedia), as their forecasts assumed constant monetary velocity — which proved false. They’ve moved on to other theories, as explained by Wikipedia:

    “The school rejected Keynesianism in favor of monetarism until the 1980s, when it turned to rational expectations. It has affected the field of finance by the development of the efficient market hypothesis. In terms of methodology the stress is on “positive economics” – that is, empirically based studies using statistics to prove theory.”

    Now that “rational expecations also has been decisively disproven, God only knows what they’ll adopt next.

    (4) “International co-ordination is a nice concept, but you can only serve one master at a time.”

    This is horribly wrong, but beyond the scope of a comment to correct. Almost any basic text in economics explains why.

  7. From this: “Schumpeter and the Obsolescence of the Entrepreneur“, Richard N. Langlois (Prof Economics, U Connecticut), April 1987:

    “What has been done already has the sharp-edged reality of all things which we have seen and experienced; the new is only the figment of our imagination. Carrying out a new plan and acting according to a customary one are things as different as making a road and walking along it.

    “How different a thing this is becomes clearer if one bears in mind the impossibility of surveying exhaustively all the effects and counter-effects of the projected enterprise. Even as many of them as could in theory be ascertained if one had unlimited time and means must practically remain in the dark. As military action must be taken in a given strategic position even if all the data potentially procurable are not available, so also in economic life action must be taken without working out all the details of what must be done. Here the success of everything depends on intuition, the capacity of seeing things in a way which afterwards proves to be true, even though it cannot be established at the moment, and of grasping the essential fact, discarding the unessential, even though one can give no account of the principles by which this is done. Thorough preparatory work, and special knowledge, breadth of intellectual understanding, talent for logical analysis, may under certain circumstances be sources of failure. (Schumpeter 1934, p. 85.)”

  8. The reports that the US and global economies are recovering are certainly correct, almost totally the result of government fiscal and monetary stimulus — which are wearing off. There are some, but few, signs that private sector activity (such as business and household investment) has restarted to drive a recovery.

    I see nothing being done about the coming wave of foreclosures in the Alt-A Option ARM market (the kind of loan where you don’t even have to make the interest payment, instead increasing the principal). These would be owned largely by the middle class, buying in prime areas, and mostly in California.

    What can save these mortgages after they recast? A rise in incomes or the value of the property returning to peak. How likely is that? I don’t see anyone in the government or media talking about fixing this or at least about how to contain the damage i.e. another round of debt deflation. Maybe they hope it can all be swept under the rug but I doubt it.
    FM reply: Not so. Steps are being taken, although on too-small a scale. Most importantly is the program to convert defaulting homeowners into renters. Write off the mortgage, avoid expensive and disruptive evictions, ink a long-term rental agreement. That might be the only effective way out, given the scale of the problem.

  9. In Physics and engineering, dynamic systems are of course modeled and studied to death. In economics, casting models as dynamic systems with cyclic behavior, and the potential for instability, is somewhat new. Courtesy of FM, here is a sub-cite from his post above: “Stabilities and instabilities in the macroeconomy“, Axel Leijonhufvud (Professor Emeritus of Economics, UCLA), 21 November 2009 – which is an excellent entry point to the study of dynamic systems theory applied to economics. Steve Keen is not the only guy working in this area after all.
    FM reply: “After all”?

  10. Re6 – “International co-ordination is a nice concept, but you can only serve one master at a time.”

    FM reply: “This is horribly wrong, but beyond the scope of a comment to correct. Almost any basic text in economics explains why.

    With two variables you can serve two masters. Our monetary policy is frozen at zero interest rate for now. How do you vary just fiscal policy and make two outcomes go your way? Unless that happens anyway by accident or serendipity?
    FM reply: That is exactly backwards. Many key aspects of the integrated global economy operate on a global basis. Capital and trade flows, for example — determined to a large extent by the net effect of national monetary policies. Unless coordinated, these can easily produce lose-lose effects. “Begger thy neighbor” trade policies are the most widely known example, of the many such effects. We’re on the edge of such a situation today, with many nations attempting to boost their economy through increased exports, primarily via currency devaluation. The adverse consequences of such policies should be obvious.

    Your comment above makes no sense at all. Can you produce a citation from some recognized economic text or economist supporting your view?

  11. Re11: From the linked cite in #10:

    “Twin dangers looming ahead are Japanese-style stagnation on the one hand and Latin-American-style high inflation on the other. In more normal times, we would regard these prospects as both unlikely and very far apart on a spectrum of eventualities. High levels of public debt, large unfunded liabilities, and large current deficits mean that they are not at all far apart in the current situation. The apparent political difficulties in decisively remedying the public finances are likely to mean that this is not just a temporary predicament. The navigable channel between Scylla and Charybdis has become quite narrow.”

    But now, brave Ulysses(Geithner/Bernanke) gets an urgent message from the economic Gods, “As you pass between the treacherous rocks, remember, you must coordinate with your other trading partners”. Listen, as we here brave Ulysees reply, “Yea, right.”.
    FM reply: No, I don’t think so. Ulysees greatest actions were as a leader of alliances — not as a Lone Ranger. Avoiding war by negotiation among the suitors for Helen, and a leader among the Achaean alliance fighting Troy. He well understood the importance of coordinated action.

  12. Pluto (and everyone) re Steve Keen. He has another site (http://www.debunkingeconomics.com/) which has a massive amount of data, articles, lectures, economic history, etc. This is a wonderful way to understand economic history.

    His Powerpoint lectures (near the top) are a great way to start to understand the development (or non-development in cases) of economic theory.

    Plus buy his book Debunking Economic (only $AUS 10 as an E-book). Plus he is one of the few public economists who (correctly) gives great credit to Mynsky, arguably the US’s greatest economist, plus a hat tip to Fisher (after he lost all his money of course).

    Disclosure: I bought his book ages ago and along with The End of Economics these were 2 of the most powerful pieces of economics I have ever read (as well as Marx, Keynes and Stafford Beer of course), no I’m not Steve Keen and no I don’t get any money from him … actually I have contributed a few dollars to him.

    Read, enjoy (he has a good sense of humour and is a great clear communicator, a talent that seems to be lost these days) and learn … I did.

  13. FM Fisk is a great reporter and seldom wrong. His book “The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East ” is a must read, he was there on the front lines for years. Only close friends have stopped him going back into Iraq in recent years (Andrew Cockburn for example, though he goes back regularly … but he is younger)

    The important thing about Fisk is that he is an old school reporter. He clearly seperates opinion from fact. He writes opinion pieces, which anyone is free to agree/disagree with. But his reporting is impeccable.

    The Independent is a World Class newpaper and they stated their independent fact checking backed up his article.

    Given other moves that are happening this looks like a highly probable event. Though current events will make it happen sooner and messier than the original plan.

    They have no choice. Bernanke in recent comments has made it clear that ‘saving’ the US economy (or the part of it the elite cares about) that the rest of the World go go hang. The US does not care that exporting inflation and economic instability through increasingly worthless dollars will stuff everyone else up. Giving GS (et all) free money to speculate is fine for them (rubbish for the rest of the World and ordinary US citizens of course).

    The start of the ‘crack down’ is happening. Watch the fight between the EU and the UK Govt about the City of London (= Wall St light).The EU will win this one, or England (Scotland will stay with the EU) will leave it (which case the EU wins anyway, getting rid of England would be a bonus to France and Germany and they are the EU, the rest of it is just window dressing).
    FM reply: This is silly, attempting to make them sound like the Encyclopedia Britannica. You must read these papers either seldomly, or highly selectively, or with amnesia to make this appeall to authority in support of Fisk’s unsourced and absurd article alledging a global conspiracy. The Independent has often been wrong, as has Fisk.

  14. FM: the generational comment comes from my own experience, plus research of course.

    I had it all, poor family but free healthcare, free education (but acedemically tough), free (but tough again) University eduction. Paid by my parents and grand parents. Plus Science and R&D were booming. I saw it as my duty to do no less and happily pay my taxes for the same for the next generation (duh).

    Now you US people don’t understand that, but that is how it worked when I grew up in the UK.

    What happened. Where did Universities go? Students with huge debts? So how did they respond. They went for Ponzi degrees. I did Physics with a 40% failure rate. Now who does Physics or Maths or … anything hard that is not a 100% pass rate?

    Who gets the interest charged on student loans?

    So now the rich current generation (poor people of all ages get nothing of course) get a return on the kids .. even before they have got a job … brilliant. A tax on kids and their future.

    And that is just one factor.

    Looting from the future and the past.

  15. FM: “… recommendations: sustained fiscal stimulus and global coordination of economic policy … We are not doing the second …

    Similar thought from advisor to the G20 expressed as “… one of the key problems with the group of the world’s wealthiest nations was that they did not want to give up national sovereignty and co-ordinate their behaviour. Her comments will come as a blow to governments who are banking on the G20 to act together to …” {from The Times, 8 December 2009}

    So the issue has been drawn to their attention as a “key problem”.
    FM reply: Problem recognition is the first step on a long road.

  16. Whoops FM: Gulf nations create a new currency!

    Just Stage 1. Fisk was right, just takes a bit of time to put it into action.

    Stage 2 : forming, the first part will be recognistion of the new currency and agreements from so many places (quell suprise) about (e.g) China trading in it for their oil purchuses .. while all the time mothing platitudes about why the US$ is still so important.

    Chinese (et al) anouncement in maybe June-July 2010? Look at the Chinse exposure curves in US Treasuries (plus recent anouncements). Hmmm.

    Going to be a very interesting year.
    FM reply: There is no “whoops” or “hmmm”. Not even anything unusual happening.

    (1) “Gulf nations create a new currency!”

    Fisk’s article about a global conspiracy was not refering to the Gulf Cooperation Council, founded in 1981 to build closer cooperation among the 6 Gulf states as the Common Market did for Europe — with a common currency one step along the way.

    Nor is Gulf currency project certain to succeed. Oman pulled out 3 year’s ago. The United Arab Emirates, the second-largest Arab economy, pulled out in May. For an update see “Gulf Monetary Council to Tackle Single Currency Peg, Launch“, Wall Street Journal, 15 December 2009.

    And if they succeed, so what? The creation of a single currency among the Gulf states would not be a significant development, nor would it substantially affect the dollar — no matter what they linked to (it likely would be a basket, with a large role for the Euro, their largest trading partner). Nothing remotely of the same significance as the creation of the EURO, which has not affected the US dollar’s role as a reserve currency.

    (2) “Look at the Chinse exposure curves in US Treasuries”

    The Chinese buy treasuries to reinvest proceeds from their trade deficit with the US. Our trade deficit has, as always, shrank during the recession — so less need to buy Treasuries. That’s not a problem, as the US savings rate has increased. That decreases our need for foreign capital. No “hmmm”, not even anything unusual.

  17. It’s going to be a long and difficult struggle I think FM. I was talking to an American friend who is a democrat late last year – She could tell me that some Americans earn $200k pa but lots get $20k maybe – But reckoned Mr obama would make things better – By spreading the wealth around. To which I asked the question: Americans on average get $44k pa. While Chinese get $2k maybe – and there’s 1.3 billion of them. Tell me how exactly you see this “spreading the wealth around” thing working again?

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