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Sunday, March 16, 2014

War and the Austrian Business Cycle

David Stockman explains the oft-observed connection between economic contraction and military conflict. Astute observers will note that the cycle he describes correlates much better with my "Limits of Demand" modification of the core mechanism of the Austrian Business Cycle:
During World War I the US public debt rose from $1.5 billion to $27 billion—an eruption that would have been virtually impossible without wartime amendments which allowed the Fed to own or finance U.S. Treasury debt.  These “emergency” amendments—it’s always an emergency in wartime—enabled a fiscal scheme that was ingenious, but turned the Fed’s modus operandi upside down and paved the way for today’s monetary central planning.

As is well known, the Wilson war crusaders conducted massive nationwide campaigns to sell Liberty Bonds to the patriotic masses. What is far less understood is that Uncle Sam’s bond drives were the original case of no savings? No credit? No problem!

What happened was that every national bank in America conducted a land office business advancing loans for virtually 100 percent of the war bond purchase price—with such loans collateralized by Uncle Sam’s guarantee. Accordingly, any patriotic American with enough pulse to sign the loan papers could buy some Liberty Bonds.

And where did the commercial banks obtain the billions they loaned out to patriotic citizens to buy Liberty Bonds?  Why the Federal Reserve banks opened their discount loan windows to the now eligible collateral of war bonds.

Additionally, Washington pegged the rates on these loans below the rates on its treasury bonds, thereby providing a no-brainer arbitrage profit to bankers.

Through this backdoor maneuver, the war debt was thus massively monetized.  Washington learned that it could unplug the free market interest rate in favor of state administered prices for money, and that credit could be massively expanded without the inconvenience of higher savings out of deferred consumption.  Effectively, Washington financed Woodrow Wilson’s crusade with its newly discovered printing press—-turning the innocent “banker’s bank” legislated in 1913 into a dangerously potent new arm of the state.

It was this wartime transformation of the Fed into an activist central bank that postponed the normal post-war liquidation—-moving the world’s scheduled depression down the road to the 1930s. The Fed’s role in this startling feat is in plain sight in the history books, but its significance has been obfuscated by Keynesian and monetarist doctrinal blinders—that is, the presumption that the state must continuously manage the business cycle and macro-economy.

Having learned during the war that it could arbitrarily peg the price of money, the Fed next discovered it could manage the growth of bank reserves and thereby the expansion of credit and the activity rate of the wider macro-economy. This was accomplished through the conduct of “open market operations” under its new authority to buy and sell government bonds and bills—something which sounds innocuous by today’s lights but was actually the fatal inflection point. It transferred the process of credit creation from the free market to an agency of the state.

As it happened, the patriotic war bond buyers across the land did steadily pay-down their Liberty loans, and, in turn, the banking system liquidated its discount window borrowings—-with a $2.7 billion balance in 1920 plunging 80 percent by 1927. In classic fashion, this should have caused the banking system to shrink drastically as war debts were liquidated and war-time inflation and malinvestments were wrung out of the economy.

But big-time mission creep had already set in.  The legendary Benjamin Strong had now taken control of the system and on repeated occasions orchestrated giant open market bond buying campaigns to offset the natural liquidation of war time credit.

Accordingly, treasury bonds and bills owned by the Fed approximately doubled during the same 7-year period. Strong justified his Bernanke-like bond buying campaigns of 1924 and 1927 as helpful actions to off-set “deflation” in the domestic economy and to facilitate the return of England and Europe to convertibility under the gold standard.

But in truth the actions of Bubbles Ben 1.0 were every bit as destructive as those of Bubbles Ben 2.0.

In the first place, deflation was a good thing that was supposed to happen after a great war. Invariably, the rampant expansion of war time debt and paper money caused massive speculations and malinvestments that needed to be liquidated.

Likewise, the barrier to normalization globally was that England was unwilling to fully liquidate its vast wartime inflation of wage, prices and debts. Instead,  it had come-up with a painless way to achieve “resumption” at the age-old parity of $4.86 per pound; namely, the so-called gold exchange standard that it peddled assiduously through the League of Nations.

The short of it was that the British convinced France, Holland, Sweden and most of Europe to keep their excess holdings of sterling exchange on deposit in the London money markets, rather than convert it to gold as under the classic, pre-war gold standard.

This amounted to a large-scale loan to the faltering British economy, but when Chancellor of the Exchequer Winston Churchill did resume convertibility in April 1925 a huge problem soon emerged.  Churchill’s splendid war had so debilitated the British economy that markets did not believe its government had the resolve and financial discipline to maintain the old $4.86 parity. This, in turn, resulted in a considerable outflow of gold from the London exchange markets, putting powerful contractionary pressures on the British banking system and economy.

Real Cause of the Great Depression: Collapse of the Artificial Boom

In this setting, Bubbles Ben 1.0 stormed in with a rescue plan that will sound familiar to contemporary ears. By means of his bond buying campaigns he sought to drive-down interest rates in New York relative to London, thereby encouraging British creditors to keep their money in higher yielding sterling rather than converting their claims to gold or dollars.

The British economy was thus given an option to keep rolling-over its debts and to continue living beyond its means. For a few years these proto-Keynesian “Lords of Finance” —- principally Ben Strong of the Fed and Montague Norman of the BOE—-managed to kick the can down the road.

But after the Credit Anstalt crisis in spring 1931, when creditors of shaky banks in central Europe demanded gold, England’s precarious mountain of sterling debts came into the cross-hairs.  In short order, the money printing scheme of Bubbles Ben 1.0 designed to keep the Brits in cheap interest rates and big debts came violently unwound.

In late September a weak British government defaulted on its gold exchange standard duty to convert sterling to gold, causing the French, Dutch and other central banks to absorb massive overnight losses. The global depression then to took another lurch downward.

But central bankers tamper with free market interest rates only at their peril—-so the domestic malinvestments and deformations which flowed from the monetary machinations of Bubbles Ben 1.0 were also monumental.

Owing to the splendid tax-cuts and budgetary surpluses of Secretary Andrew Mellon, the American economy was flush with cash, and due to the gold inflows from Europe the US banking system was extraordinarily liquid. The last thing that was needed in Roaring Twenties America was the cheap interest rates—-at 3 percent and under—that resulted from Strong’s meddling in the money markets.

At length, Strong’s ultra-low interest rates did cause credit growth to explode, but it did not end-up funding new steel mills or auto assembly plants.  Instead, the Fed’s cheap debt flooded into the Wall Street call money market where it fueled that greatest margin debt driven stock market bubble the world had ever seen. By 1929, margin debt on Wall Street had soared to 12 percent of GDP or the equivalent of $2 trillion in today’s economy.

As is well known, much economic carnage resulted from the Great Crash of 1929. But what is less well understood is that the great stock market bubble also spawned a parallel boom in foreign bonds—-specie of Wall Street paper that soon proved to be the sub-prime of its day.

Indeed, Bubbles Ben 1.0 triggered a veritable cascade of speculative borrowing that soon spread to the far corners of the globe, including places like municipality of Rio de Janeiro, the Kingdom of Denmark and the free city of Danzig, among countless others.
This is an excellent addition to both military and financial history. Be sure to read the whole thing; it's close 10k words, but it is definitely worth the time and effort. This, in particular, is a key observation that underlines the falsity of the Keynesian narrative: "The Keynesians have never acknowledged the single most salient statistic about the war debt: namely, that the debt burden actually fell during the war, with the ratio of total credit market debt to GDP declining from 210 percent in 1938 to 190 percent at the 1945 peak!"

I'd noticed this myself in looking at total credit market debt, but never thought through the implications as Stockman has. One can even see it in the relevant chart posted in RGD.

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32 Comments:

Anonymous Idle Spectator March 16, 2014 7:02 AM  

I'm so glad Obama is at the helm in this current cycle.

Anonymous Jack Amok March 16, 2014 7:59 AM  

At length, Strong’s ultra-low interest rates did cause credit growth to explode, but it did not end-up funding new steel mills or auto assembly plants. Instead, the Fed’s cheap debt flooded into the Wall Street call money market where it fueled that greatest margin debt driven stock market bubble the world had ever seen

This is what the Keynes-addled lunkheads never get. They're so caught up in doing math that they lose sight of what an economy really is. People build things and sell them, then they use the money they got from selling the things they made to buy other things someone made. Ultimately there some guy building something or growing something or fixing something or doing something useful that makes the economy go round. The money is just a measuring stick, and it doesn't make the economy bigger if you use more but smaller marks on the stick.

The only way for the economy to grow is for more people to make more stuff. To build more factories or learn new skills or invent new things. And all of those activities take skilled people with spare time - construction workers to build new factories, machinists to make the equipment in it, mentors to train new workers, and inventors and entrepreneurs to create new things.

Bankers shuffling paper and calling wads of cash from the luminiferous aether don't stack one brick on top of another, train one new technician, or invent one new useful product. In fact, by siphoning off smart people from engineering, medicine and other productive disciplines, the financiers are actually harming growth because there are fewer talented people who can make things. So pouring extra money into the economy can never actually spur growth, because it doesn't do a damn thing to create the things necessary for growth.

Anonymous scoobius dubious March 16, 2014 8:08 AM  

"the financiers are actually harming growth because there are fewer talented people who can make things."

You don't understand. They don't WANT to grow the economy or make things. They don't care. They just want to skim their cut off the top. They're only interested in rent-seeking.

Anonymous daddynichol March 16, 2014 8:38 AM  

As with the previous, more well known depression, the "canary in the mine" economic indicator(s) was dying in smaller economies but ignored (intentionally and unintentionally) in the US until financial death sucked out the oxygen in 1929.

Anonymous DJF March 16, 2014 8:52 AM  

""""Bankers shuffling paper and calling wads of cash "''"

In fact modern technology should have reduced the percent of the economy that banking and finances should consume in the economy. Computers, internet, ATM’s etc should have been a force for reducing cost of the finance. And in fact real banking has reduced its costs.

But instead with the central banks feeding money into the financers they have created a web of ‘services” which have little to do with the real economy but instead are there to create fees that the financiers can feed off of. Mostly by churning money around and around faster and faster so that the financiers can skim their billions off the top.

Anonymous Michael of Charlotte March 16, 2014 9:00 AM  

My response to reading this article summed up in one word.

It rhymes with luck.

OpenID simplytimothy March 16, 2014 9:33 AM  

The only way for the economy to grow is for more people to make more stuff. To build more factories or learn new skills or invent new things. And all of those activities take skilled people with spare time

We used to be able to do that because the value of the dollar increased with time. By devaluing the dollar, less time is available for R&D, tinkering and puttering.

Today's Orville and Wilbur are to busy working two jobs to put food on the table to bother tinkering with a flying machine.

The bankers/government are time thieves.

Blogger Outlaw X March 16, 2014 9:40 AM  

So printing money and lowering interest rates is like drinking a can of soda. It gives you a quick burst of energy and a sugar high but in a few hours you crash and need another soda - keep repeating and eventually it wreaks havoc on your body and you become fat, lethargic and unhealthy and you have to stop the sodas eventually or you will become increasingly ill and the sodas stop working .

While investing in things like factories that create stuff and increases the needed labor force is like eating a high protein low carb diet which attenuates and levels the highs and lows and maintains your health.

Is that about right, because that is the best way I really can start to understand economic theory? If I am close it makes perfect sense.

Blogger Salt March 16, 2014 9:52 AM  

What will the future write about this Epic which is on its way? I'm beginning to think that we'll look at past societal / economic collapses, even to trench warfare, with a real sense of nostalgia. "Living during the Roman collapse, they had it pretty good."

Anonymous bob k. mando March 16, 2014 10:01 AM  

Outlaw X March 16, 2014 9:40 AM
Is that about right, because that is the best way I really can start to understand economic theory? If I am close it makes perfect sense.



it's a useful analogy.



many moons ago, i had an argument with JQP about the meaning of 'wealth' over at Job's Goat.

i was making the point that wealth has nothing to do with the number of dollars ( or franks/euros/pounds sterling/etc ) you have in your economy and is everything to do with PRODUCTIVITY and human capital.

iirc, my specific point was that ONE farmer in the US produces more surplus food than almost 100 Malaysian rice farmers.

this, in turn, means a labor force ~99 strong has been released from day to day food production and can thence be turned to other productive purposes.

the key question being: is society going to do anything useful with these excess workers? or are we going to hand them EBT cards and tell them to sit at home on their asses?

secondarily, of course, you have to educate the labor force such that they're capable of more than ditch digging. Fred's last essay addresses that.

Anonymous Stilicho March 16, 2014 10:01 AM  

Wait a minute, aren't the inflationists telling us that deflation isn't possible because printing press/ZIRP?

Anyway, this struck me:
This, in particular, is a key observation that underlines the falsity of the Keynesian narrative: "The Keynesians have never acknowledged the single most salient statistic about the war debt: namely, that the debt burden actually fell during the war, with the ratio of total credit market debt to GDP declining from 210 percent in 1938 to 190 percent at the 1945 peak!"

I have not read the entire article yet, so I may be missing something, but I've seen this explained by mainstream economists as the success story of the war/gov't intervention stimulating economic growth in excess of debt growth. In other words, the same old story of growing our way out of debt by issuing even more debt. I thought the Keynesians/monetarists/interventionists viewed this as their greatest success story.

Anonymous scoobius dubious March 16, 2014 10:04 AM  

"While investing in things like factories that create stuff and increases the needed labor force"

It only works that way if your investment/production/consumption cycle is entirely domestic (through say tariffs, and policies that attack global free trade) or if your international trading partners have parity in terms of things like labor costs and regulatory environment. Of if you specialize in such niche value-added products and services that the Third World slave labor can't compete with you. In other words, not reality as we live it now.

Anonymous scoobius dubious March 16, 2014 10:07 AM  

"you have to educate the labor force such that they're capable of more than ditch digging."

Hey, so I've got an idea, let's import squazillions of ineducable paupers who will never, ever be capable of more than ditch digging! Brilliant!

Anonymous Stilicho March 16, 2014 10:14 AM  

Astute observers will note that the cycle he describes correlates much better with my "Limits of Demand" modification of the core mechanism of the Austrian Business Cycle:

Indeed. Including the limits channeling forcibly created credit into speculative investments by the financial sector instead of into corporate/business sector capital investments or self-liquidating business expansions.

Anonymous Stilicho March 16, 2014 10:22 AM  

the key question being: is society going to do anything useful with these excess workers? or are we going to hand them EBT cards and tell them to sit at home on their asses?

Paying them to do nothing contributes to collapse, which, in turn, contributes to them finding a way of supporting themselves. I may have just figured out the Fed's brilliant, unarticulated plan for full employment: collapse the system so that everyone has to work to eat.

Anonymous Stilicho March 16, 2014 10:26 AM  

Hey, so I've got an idea, let's import squazillions of ineducable paupers who will never, ever be capable of more than ditch digging! Brilliant!

What raciss nonsense. Don't you know that those poor people are just as capable of voting for a living as cis-native paupers?

Anonymous H March 16, 2014 11:00 AM  

Does this mean that Obama trying to reduce the size/spending of the military is actually a correct action? Or is there a timing problem where, according to the article, we should have reduced the military's size a long time ago, but now that Russia and China (if China doesn't implode first) have regained some economic and military strength, reducing the military now is the incorrect action to take?

Anonymous bob k. mando March 16, 2014 11:45 AM  

H March 16, 2014 11:00 AM
Does this mean that Obama trying to reduce the size/spending of the military is actually a correct action?



the last time i looked, the US was spending ~40% of the military budget OF THE ENTIRE PLANET . our .mil spending was larger than nations 2 through 20 *combined*. ( this may no longer be true as China has started ramping their .mil budget and Japan has responded somewhat )

we SHOULD, logically, be able to reduce .mil spending to, oh, the equivalent of nations 2-5 or 2-4 and still be able to handle all legitimate security concerns quite easily. especially considering the decades of sunk capital ( stockpiled munitions ) and tech advantages that we have already secured.

of course, the above presupposes some things:
-the US doesn't act like complete douchebags and induce some major coalition to form against us
- we don't expend our military force in pointless foreign shitholes for no strategic purpose ( Bosnia, Somalia, Afghan, Iraq, etc )
- we don't insist on garrisoning the world FREE OF CHARGE
- we actually fight to win


worst of all, we're doing all of this military spending on a credit card. mil spending isn't the complete reason for ~1 trillion being added to the debt each year but it ain't helping.

Ron Paul was right, we need to slash .mil expenditures ( also social expenditures AND federal headcount, fed employees being mostly another form of EBT ) and abandon practically all overseas installations.

it's not a question of 'want' or 'strategic necessity' or 'global policeman'. it's a fact of WE CAN'T AFFORD IT.

if we're going to spend like this on a continuing basis the .mil MUST become a profit center ... to do otherwise requires bankrupting the country.

yeah, see how much support you can get from the Dems for that.

it's almost like they have a goal they're unwilling to tell us about ....

Anonymous The other skeptic March 16, 2014 11:48 AM  

secondarily, of course, you have to educate the labor force such that they're capable of more than ditch digging. Fred's last essay addresses that.

No matter how much education you give some people, they will never turn into rocket surgeons.

However, they do function to increase aggregate demand, even when they die. (Indeed, their death in their home country is of no use to anyone, especially the Squid Bankers.)

Cui bono?

Anonymous bob k. mando March 16, 2014 12:05 PM  

The other skeptic March 16, 2014 11:48 AM
No matter how much education you give some people, they will never turn into rocket surgeons.



i never asserted otherwise.

it is, however, quite easy to turn someone who could have been an excellent technician or engineer into a glorified shovel driver.

and what is the societal cost in that?


The other skeptic March 16, 2014 11:48 AM
However, they do function to increase aggregate demand



you're not seriously going to make the economic argument that a min wage ditch digger is going to increase aggregate demand any appreciable amount relative to a brain surgeon ... are you?

and besides, you've already run off the rails.

demand is irrelevant if you haven't produced the wealth necessary to satisfy those purchase needs.

i may have population such that i 'demand' 500 trillion tons of grain every year. if my 'wealth production' is Malaysian rice farmers, i may only be able to afford to buy/produce 100 trillion tons of rice.

what's the result in that? to put it another way, you've already acceded to the Marxist conceptualization of the economy:
"From each according to their ability, to each according to their need." ( which is an exact inversion of the way the market place actually works. no, i don't think that is an accident )

'need'/demand is meaningless without ability to pay. demand is a 2nd ( 3rd? ) order function. without wealth/production you have no pie to divide up into slices.

most economic 'theory' appears to be about obscuring this fact.

Anonymous The other skeptic March 16, 2014 12:11 PM  

you're not seriously going to make the economic argument that a min wage ditch digger is going to increase aggregate demand any appreciable amount relative to a brain surgeon ... are you?

I think senility has set in in your case. Did you read the rest of what I wrote?

Of course I do not believe that they are better than a rocket surgeon from my perspective, however, from the perspective of those who benefit, the Squid Banker, it is better to have a lot of profligate short-term thinkers when the rest of us are on the hook to bail the Bankers out.

Anonymous Jack Amok March 16, 2014 12:32 PM  

Today's Orville and Wilbur are to busy working two jobs to put food on the table to bother tinkering with a flying machine.

Not to mention the apoplectic fits OSHA, the EPA, and the local chapter of Mothers Against Scary Things Men Do would all have.

Anonymous bob k. mando March 16, 2014 12:41 PM  

The other skeptic March 16, 2014 12:11 PM
however, from the perspective of those who benefit, the Squid Banker,



actually, no.

in a society of production, plenty and wealth even the bankers do better ... over the long term.

apart from the amount of physical gold they could lay their hands on, the average EBT queen lives a life that the mightiest pharaoh could never even imagine.

but that will end.

IF
a society will not control and limit it's sociopaths
THEN
it will be controlled and limited by those sociopaths

Anonymous DJF March 16, 2014 12:54 PM  

“””””bob k. mando writes””””
“””””Ron Paul was right, we need to slash .mil expenditures ( also social expenditures AND federal headcount, fed employees being mostly another form of EBT ) and abandon practically all overseas installations.”””’

On the military side we need to cut commitments first. For sixty plus years US politicians have run around the world giving out various military commitments to foreign governments. Its cheap and easy until a war starts.

Worse thing to do is to cut military spending and keep the huge level of foreign commitments we now have. Its like issuing an IOU without any money, sure it makes everyone happy for a short time but then the bill comes due.

Unfortunately cutting military spending while increasing commitments seems to be the policy of US politicians and defense incorporated. The same applies on the civilian side, its cheap and easy to commit to subsidized college for everyone, subsidized flood insurance for everyone, etc etc.

Anonymous Jack Amok March 16, 2014 2:29 PM  

'need'/demand is meaningless without ability to pay. demand is a 2nd ( 3rd? ) order function. without wealth/production you have no pie to divide up into slices.

Keynesians think like hunter-gatherers. Demand is what makes someone go out looking for a berry bush. Berry bushes are something the universe provides, so no need to think about them until you want some berries. Sometimes berry bushes can be hard to find, but the more you want berries, the harder you'll look for them and the more you will find. Thus, demand "produces" more berry bushes because it's the picking, not the growing, that a Keynesian thinks of as production.

And when he encounters a farmer who says "No, these are my berry bushes. I planted them, I tended them, I grew them..." deep down, the leftie is thinking "You didn't grow that..." and thinks the farmer is being selfish for trying to horde all the berry bushes.

Blogger Nate March 16, 2014 3:11 PM  

" "The Keynesians have never acknowledged the single most salient statistic about the war debt: namely, that the debt burden actually fell during the war, with the ratio of total credit market debt to GDP declining from 210 percent in 1938 to 190 percent at the 1945 peak!""

wait...

If I'm just being an idiot here to whack me upside the head...

But isn't this the direct result of an artificially high GDP estimate due to gross mal-investment?

Anonymous Stilicho March 16, 2014 4:12 PM  

But isn't this the direct result of an artificially high GDP estimate due to gross mal-investment?

Potato/potahto. Enormous wartime production surge coming on the heels of much lower production levels due to Great Depression certainly increased measured GDP.

Anonymous bob k. mando March 16, 2014 4:19 PM  

Nate March 16, 2014 3:11 PM
But isn't this the direct result of an artificially high GDP estimate due to gross mal-investment?



if you by that you mean, Government spending being considered as beneficial to the economy ( as the GDP formula does ), then yes.

but now you're back to me droning on about how ALL .gov spending should be calculated in the GDP formula with a 'frictional loss modifier' ( tax code creation, funds collection, funds disbursement, upkeep of Congress, etc ), say ~*.7

WHILE ALL DEFICIT SPENDING should receive a multiplier which is negative ...

which would completely change all historical GDP numbers ...


Blogger frigger611 March 16, 2014 5:29 PM  

I honestly don't think Obama will finish out his second term before the next big collapse comes. Too much stupid moving too fast.

Blogger ScuzzaMan March 16, 2014 5:46 PM  

There's another aspect to this cycle. The debt explosion that was used to finance the US' entry into WW! did indeed give rise to the Depression. But the Depression, in its turn, gave rise to WW2.

War's are not always caused by economic chaos and crisis, but economic choas and crisis are always followed by political crisis and conflict.

This is why we ought to be gravely concerned - far moreso than most are - by the present parlous state of our economies, and the ongoing gerrymandering of every mesure of economic output by people who will be lynched when the true state of affairs becomes unavoidably apparent (i.e. when large numbers of people begin to starve, freeze, and otherwise suffer what we once thought to be 3rd world conditions).

The extreme and global money-printing excesses of today can only end one way, and that is in severe crisis. That economic crisis WILL be followed by political conflict, i.e. war.

Sadly, my view is it is already too late, and retribution for our disinterest in the probity of our elected officials is already in the pipe ...

Blogger David March 17, 2014 10:01 AM  

"So printing money and lowering interest rates is like drinking a can of soda. It gives you a quick burst of energy and a sugar high but in a few hours you crash and need another soda - keep repeating and eventually it wreaks havoc on your body and you become fat, lethargic and unhealthy and you have to stop the sodas eventually or you will become increasingly ill and the sodas stop working ."

The entire economy of the USA (and frankly most of the world) is like roses grown in a greenhouse in Fargo ND in February. It all depends on maintaining the artificial "stimulus," from the Military-Industrial-Complex to the Medical-Industrial-Complex to the BigAg-Industrial-Complex to the HigherEd-Industrial-Complex and the Banking/Financial-Industrial-Complex.

The question is how much longer Credit-from-nowhere can sustain the growing debt service costs. Singularity is reached when 100% of exponential credit growth is needed to just pay the debt service, but before that is reached the herd will awaken from its grass-cropping stupor and stampede.

Sadly, there are only cliffs on all sides. All those "Complexes" (the roses) will wilt and die once the generator runs out of credit-growth fuel.

Anonymous Don March 18, 2014 1:29 PM  

Bottom line - how long before our finances force us into real conflict?

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