Posted by: theoptimisticconservative | February 13, 2012

Athens, Europe, America: The inverted triumph of Marxism?

Ed Morrissey writes today about the burning of Athens after the Greek parliament passed the austerity measures demanded for the EU bailout.  He is quite correct that the Greeks need to reassess their own attitudes about a number of things, but I’m not sure we have all understood the most important thing the Greeks – and other Europeans, and Americans; in fact, the entire Western world – need to get over.

Most American pundits address the problem in terms of the Greeks (and undoubtedly some other Europeans) demanding “goodies” from the “government.”  And they are not wrong about that, but the refrain is an incomplete depiction of what’s at work with the public-debt implosion of the West.  The more fundamental problem is the vilification and punishment of work and individual initiative.

This is not just a matter of the Europeans imposing rules that look like rank sloth to Americans, such as the EU’s 35-hour work week, and the Greek designation of hairdressing as a hazardous occupation, meriting early retirement (at the age of 50).

It is a matter, more basically, of suspicion and hostility about “labor,” as if labor is an imposition on the human being, rather than our greatest opportunity, and requires constant amelioration and adjustment by the state.

This is a thoroughly Marxist view of labor.  Marx’s original definition of the well-known term “excess value” related not to the profit the capitalist made on the workman’s labor, but to the excess productive work the capitalist extracted from him, over and above the amount necessary for the worker’s self-sustainment.  Marx accepted that sustaining human life was more than mere brute survival, but his theory was that capitalism had distorted the connection of work with sustaining the individual in an appropriate level of consumption and comfort.  Capitalism forced the worker to work harder than he would have to, if his work objective were sustaining his own life rather than meeting the goals of the capitalist boss.

Marx’s view was essentially negative: work could be appropriately scoped and properly rewarded only within certain limits.   A work regime developed outside those limits was distorted, oppressive, and in need of correction.

Marx had no perspective on the tireless engine of the most powerful Western economies in the Enlightenment and modern eras:  the entrepreneur.  In Marx’s formulation, the entrepreneur did not exist in any form significant to broad social dynamics.  Marx’s theory involved capital and labor, but ignored the entrepreneur and entrepreneurship.

This was a fatal error, because the entrepreneur is the entity that combines labor and capital.  He overcomes – naturally, and without artificial intervention – the systemic clash of interests posited by Marx.  The entrepreneur defines labor for himself, and he finds it good to do so.  He sees his work as a tremendous opportunity, and most definitely not as an imposition of something defined against his interests from without.  The existence of the entrepreneur is what makes it invalid to define labor narrowly, and in terms of conflict between socioeconomic roles.

In dismissing the entrepreneur, Marx left out the most important birthing mechanism of a dynamic economy.  And so does Europe, with its laws designed to relieve its citizens of the “unjust” burdens of labor.  The a priori assumption of the European political class is that labor is, in fact, an imposition – unless it is being regulated and adjusted by a compassionate state.

The problem here is not really that people tend to take advantage of that state posture and imagine themselves entitled to a utopian existence.  The problem is that the initiative to work for a self-defined reward is the most powerful factor in human economic life – and the EU has been laboring diligently to shut it down.

The European political perspective doesn’t just encourage a languishing entitlement mentality; it actively discourages the only thing that could enlarge the pie and work off the absurd and dysfunctional debt regime of the European Union.  It is not, for instance, because millions of young Europeans are lazy and stupid that their unemployment levels are so high.  It is because their governments regulate the people’s lives so heavily, and impose such costs, that very few people of any age are free to define work for themselves, and get on with it.

Some of them do, of course, running what are effectively small businesses in an underground economy (especially in the south).  But in much of Europe, the regulatory and tax environment is hostile to starting small businesses legally.  If you make it effectively illegal to start with little – not enough for full regulatory compliance – and act as an entrepreneur, you shut down entrepreneurship in the official, above-board economy.  Less entrepreneurship – less opportunity, less growth, less empowerment of the young and poor, less creative destruction and renewal.

It is quite true that not all of Europe is so steeped in self-imposed sclerosis.  But that’s really the point:  it only takes as much as there is today to produce the seemingly unsalvageable debt and unemployment situation in the “PIGS” – Portugal, Italy, Greece, and Spain – and to unsettle the rest of Europe and world markets.

America is headed down the same path. We haven’t reached the point of mandating a 35-hour work week yet, or retiring hairdressers on their public pensions at 50, but we are all but there in the spirit of our labor laws.  If you heap suspicion on work that isn’t directly controlled or defined by government or a union; if you punish the rewards of independent, profitable, uniquely hard work; if you discourage the unguided, creative development of work – you get less work.

We can only tax what we produce.  The epic economic error of the modern West lies in its determination to discourage production, whether by ruling out industry entirely with environmental ukases, by denigrating productive work in the culture, or by actively discouraging productive work with regulatory obstacles and punishments.

This model is unsustainable, and if we want to fix the problem, we have to let people work.  We have to let them define work and rewards for themselves.  If we insist on an intrusive supervision of other people’s work and production arrangements – if we insist, on an ever-growing list of points, that they be regulated or prevented, “for their own good,” by the state – then we have indeed consigned ourselves to a future like Athens’.

J.E. Dyer’s articles have appeared at Hot Air’s Green Room, Commentary’s “contentions,Patheos, and The Weekly Standard online.

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Responses

  1. Don’t suppose the Athenian government employee rioters were augmented by Wisconsin teacher tourists on sick leave do you?

    • +1

    • Plus the state legislators that ran away rather than vote.

  2. Interesting article, your points about the rewards brought about by independent, profitable and unique hard work are valid to some degree. I would though suggest that it could be overlooking the fact that Marx was referring to the exploitation of labour. The EU is far from a Marxist institution, nor are any states within particularly Marxist in governance. Although by US standards, it is perhaps understandable that the notion of welfare states seems to some degree at least, to be a Marxian concept.
    There is nothing much independent in toiling for 50+ hours per week for low pay. Hence the 35 hour week exists in some, though far from all of the states within the EU, the UK and being at least two examples. Furthermore there exists no legislation that precludes an entrepreneur from working as many hours as they see fit to establish and develop their own business, what there is in some countries is a safeguard against the encroachment of work upon every facet of peoples lives.

    • Welcome, almcdonald, and apologies for the delay in your first comment. There’s a one-time “approval” that keeps down the spam.

      Actually, the “welfare state” per se bears more relation to the old concept of a Christian monarch’s provision for his people than it does to Marxism. In any case, Americans, through a series of measures adopted incrementally, bought into the welfare state decades ago.

      The real point about Marx is that he required labor to be defined narrowly, as a means of self-sustainment. He also had a definite view of there being a sort of organically-appropriate level of work by which the human naturally sustains himself. This and ONLY this was what constituted noble work. Skewed societal expectations, like those that arosed during the industrial revolution, might drive people to work more than that, but the dynamics that created these situations were dysfunctional, as were the resulting “excess” labor and production.

      “Capital” has come to be taught through the prism of 20th century politics, and this aspect of Marx’s theoretical construct is rarely communicated to undergrads now. I was very fortunate to have an economics professor who made a point of it and required us to actually read “Capital.”

      Labor is defined as something inherently subject to distortion — in the case of industrial capitalism, “exploitation” — if it strays outside of a Marxist concept of self-sustainment. Working harder than you “need” to, to put food on the table, is a distorting activity, individually and socially. (We see this theme in Hollywood movies all the time.)

      Yet that is what an entrepreneur does — and typically because he or she loves the work, has a vision, and can’t be happy any other way. Marx didn’t allow for this. You can read “Capital” for yourself: his theory simply doesn’t account for the economic and social power of the entrepreneur.

      Entrepreneurs don’t function solely as starters of small businesses, but it is in that guise that they wield the most “accelerating” economic power.

      If you think people “should’ only have to work as hard as “X” standard, you won’t appreciate the entrepreneur.

      If you see self-guided work, for self-defined rewards, as the biggest, most open-ended opportunity humans have on this earth, you will appreciate the entrepreneur — and you’ll recognize the damping down of productivity, the curtailing of opportunity and revenues, inherent in laws that define work as a burden.

  3. “We can only tax what we produce”

    Not quite. Retroactive income redistribution taxes assets, not income alone. (Social justice demands it)

    Once that is implemented, invariably there are the defined exceptions; those who support and are part of the controlling leftist elite. (as those on the right don’t support redistribution)

    The end result of course is something remarkably like the Soviet Union, where party status determines economic reward.

    That is where Obama’s path leads…

    • But assets can only be compiled through the medium of, and in the context, of production. Production is the start of everything. You don’t have assets unless there is a “production regime.”

      So I still contend that you can only tax production. There is nothing else to “tax.” There are people, there are materials (land, water), and there is production. You can’t “tax” people, you can only take them into slavery. You can’t “tax” materials, you can only seize or establish control of them.

      There has to be production for there to be a “tax.” Otherwise, no value can change hands without slavery or seizure.

      • It’s true that everything starts with ‘production’. But once produced, assets that produce nothing can be taxed and are, for instance once a house is built , sold and paid off…property taxes continue. Taxes which are solely based upon the assets value, a ‘value’ which may not increase at all, yet the tax remains, ad infinitum. Justified, rightly or not by claiming that they are for community infrastructure. But that tax alone demonstrates that something ‘produced’ long ago can be taxed in perpetuity…which for social utopians, is the next step after taxing production.

        What the socialists would love to do is place a tax upon all our assets, savings, financial assets of whatever the form, not the interest but on the principal. That is an entire different kettle of fish than merely taxing production when produced.

      • Land is taxed everywhere, but it never was “produced.” The most efficient tax of all (I.e., the one having the fewest behavioral distortions) is the head tax. Many years ago, that approach to taxation was, shall we say, decapitated.

        • Land is developed and improved for commercial or residential use.
          Manhattan Island was never produced, but has produced a bit of real estate wealth. Population density tends to do that for you.
          On the Federal Level, the Fed prints money to pay its bills. It collects taxes to control inflation.
          Raising taxes to balance budgets is simply Political
          Retorical Hog Wash.

          • Most of this is off point, and the rest is incorrect. I’ll address the latter. Structures, which are produced, are indeed taxed. But the land underneath them, and unimproved land, also is taxed. It was never produced.

            Other wealth taxes are taxes on past production, so they stil fit under TOS’ stated axiom. If the government could figure out how to tax inherited IQ points it surely would do so. Governments tax wealth, financial or otherwise, when they lack the authority to tax production (many states do not allow cities to tax income) or when their polities fail to generate enough production. The Chinese learned to do this even better: they tax people for living on land owned by the government.

            • No, you can’t tax “land.” Not if you want to collect. What do you do, go dig up some of the dirt and haul it off in a truck bed?

              The only taxable quantity is production. If you could extract a “tax” from land without production being involved, all our federal debt problems would be solved: the US government could simply tax its “land” every year for whatever it needed.

              Ownership and evaluation of land are a BASIS for taxation, and wreed is right that the evaluation changes with the use of the land. But the only way to COLLECT the tax is for someone connected with the land to have value from production under his control. Sometimes that production value is directly related to the land in question; sometimes it’s not.

              As sheriffs all across America can attest today, when the land’s owner doesn’t have sufficient value from production under his control, you can “tax” the land all you want, but you won’t collect anything. After due process of law, the sheriff ends up just as I indicated originally: with the land under his control, but no “tax” in his coffers. To obtain the amount of the tax, the sheriff needs to sell the land to someone who controls enough value from production to pay the tax.

              For a tax to be collected, there must be production. Period.

              • Which brings up an important point about private property, neglect to pay your property taxes and see who really owns the property. And by the way, enthusiasts of democracy, anybody have a record of the Pawnee vote when their property was acquired by Uncle Sam?

              • You can’t be serious.

  4. Ok.

    No one ever seems to be able to answer this one because even the smartest folks seem to just get floored and step back into a head scratching brain freeze:

    What happens to the world and national economies when everybody is in massive debt to everyone else?

    1. The Chinese have no money. They are swimming in debt, and have been kiting checks to purchase securities, often with other securities in a pyramid scheme that would make Bernie Madoff jealous.

    2. Every western nation is in debt far beyond its ability to pay that debt back and most of the debt isn’t even actually “owed” to anybody. Since A) future people cannot collect from present people in the short term because they don’t exist yet, and B) the West is failing miserably at reproducing so there won’t be enough future people to even pull off even a partial repayment of what to whom?

    Now what seems to me to be a huge error in “capitalism” is, something akin to Marx’s Labor Theory, Excess Labor Value… etc. Remember Socialism and its offshoots Marxism -Lenin/Stalin/Mao, Fascism, and Social Democracy are all “attractive” to the masses because they provide a secular religion and belief system that feeds off of kernels of truth. The Labor Theory was trash, but trash has its uses.

    During the period of “globalization” we missed something that pulled the pin in the big bag, the one pin that starts the flow, and ends up ripping the bag wide open as the flow turns into a gusher. That something was the fundamental error of the modern Capitalist system. Labor is currently treated as an Expense… a Liability… NOT a Capital Investment or value added asset.

    That formulation is wrong, and it has been since the modern industrial age moved to highly skilled value added labor, from the unskilled, monotony of the industrial age assembly lines and factories. Marx was partially correct (the Kernel of truth) in stating that labor added value. He was wrong in counting it as 100% of the value of a product, but it is a valid component of the capital structure of any modern manufacturing facility.

    We are also wrong in how we count capital assets, and flows. The old models are breaking down rapidly but we cling to them like tattered filthy old security blankets. We have a perverse tax system that provides disincentives for capital formation, and rewards wasted “renter” behavior.

    Example: I purchase a major computer system for my company. It is paid for up front, or over a modest period of three years, after which I own the asset. Well, I get taxed on the full value of the product in year 1, and then over the next 2 I can depreciate the value to $0. But I end up carrying it for that period on my asset sheet.

    Most companies choose to “lease” this arrangement ends up with me paying 3 to 4 times the cost of the product, but with the perverse tax incentive of being able to deduct the cost from my bottom line. No owned asset equals no taxes on the item.

    It is far better and cheaper in pure cost for a company to buy the computer, but the cumulative amount of tax savings offsets that purchase. What I end up with, however, in any residual value at the end of three years is $0 and when the lease is up I am still paying top dollar for a low value item.

    Nuts…

    Another Example of short term thinking: Instead of idiotic shortsighted corporations moving their operations to US locations in right to work states, fighting back against union overreach, and working with conservatives in various governments to reduce regulations… Corporations did what most “capitalist” enterprises seem to do… Run from the free market and look for government intervention and monopoly power to make money the old fashioned Fascist way. The Corporate/State is now the norm.

    So what happened when slave labor markets opened in Asia? Corporations who almost universally count Employees as liabilities and not assets… traded their skilled labor and short easy to manage supply chains… for virtual slave labor and long, complex and expensive supply chains. The net effect has been a manufacturing drain that has sapped the income levels and employment prospects for the bulk of blue collar America.

    Businesses (never fond of capitalism/free markets) liked the controlled and predictable market of cheap labor. It put up with low quality, bribery, sweatshops, and predatory fascist/corporatist arrangement to reduce labor costs.

    More companies are looking to come back. The experiment has been less that successful. 1) the supply chains were more expensive and more difficult than ever anticipated. 2) there is little legal or moral ethic in these nations, and the copies, knock-offs, and graft is beginning to make it more palitable to move to Virginia, the Carolinas, Alabama, Tennessee, etc.

    But the error still remains.. Skilled, reliable, honest labor does have value, it does provide value added, and without it the manufacturer has no employment base to form a reliable customer stream.

    You can’t buy one of Henry’s Model T’s if you don’t earn enough to pay for it, and your family provisions, housing, and sunderies.

    So… the only people with money and no significant debt are small Oil producers, and even they live on borrowed/lease technology and reliable functioning markets.

    The entire Western world is headed for Greece. The masses, hooked on Socialist opium, will destroy whats left of their societies out of pure craven spite.

    Hang on… It’s going to be a bumpy ride.

    r/TMF

    • You need to study up on some of the thoughts of Carl Menger, Eugen von Boehm-Bawerk, Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek. Or even watch that part of the film “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” where Walter Huston explains to the other flop-house residents in Tampico why gold is so expensive. The labor theory of value, while not as preposterous as astrology, is bogus, as is Huston’s soliloquy. Like other theories, especially those concerned with human behavior, it contains enough of a possibility of truth to merit consideration, otherwise it would not be considered at all. That doesn’t give it any credibility, however.

      Ingenious mankind was able to exchange goods with facility long before there were nation states, mints, central banks, fiat currency or sovereign bonds. These things are not what determine commerce but are addendums to it, created not as a favor to us untermensch but as profit centers for our masters. When they explode, life will go on, perhaps in a new and better mode. Men will still exchange one thing
      for another that they desire more, just as they always have.

    • “What happens to the world and national economies when everybody is in massive debt to everyone else? “

      It’s called sovereign bankruptcy. Theoretically, every nation could be thrown back to the barter system, highly impracticable in today’s modern economies. The closest we’ve ever come to experiencing worldwide sovereign bankruptcies is the great depression of the 30′s. As bad as that was, nations were not nearly as in debt as they are today, so a modern depression could be even worse.

      However, Argentina’s 15 year depression (1975-1990) and Germany in the early 30′s demonstrate that countries can return to fiscal heath. In a world wide fiscal collapse, there would be few if any creditor nations making recovery much more difficult but the land, skills, knowledge, labor, mineral wealth, oil, hydroelectric power, coal, etc. do not just disappear, so the basis for trade and wealth would still exist for a recovery.

      The problem would be in regaining confidence in a new monetary system, as any monetary system relies upon confidence that one will actually be paid and have the fiat currency honored. The transition period between the fiscal collapse and the establishment of a new monetary system would be highly chaotic.

      Since Virtually every Western democratic government is insolvent and the entire economic infrastructure of the world is Spiraling Toward Bankruptcy its time we started thinking about the coming World Depression and how we can weather the storm. Burying our heads in the sand will simply make the pain worse when the gathering storm engulfs us.

      • Thanks Geoffry,

        It was a straight up question with a hint if rhetorical in the mix, but nobody really ever attempts to answer it.

        I agree, that’s the long bumpy ride, the deflationary crash that will occur after whatever key event causes the cascade failure of debts coming due, and no one and nothing to pay them off within reasonable sight.

        The World Depression of 20xx is not far off. How bad it will be will be completely dependent on the big cities and how bad the riots and civil unrest are.

        I drive through a good portion of Virginia, now. Out I66 and down I81 to go to Blacksburg, and down US17 to Newport News. I can see the effects of the downturn in the countryside. Formerly booming counties are contracting. Small cities and towns are stagnating. Once you get out of the four county DC Metro out side the Beltway arc. The unemployment numbers are increasing, and the folks are struggling.

        The big college towns have money, but that is largely borrowed and redistributed. As the military is eviscerated the Southside/Tidewater communities will begin to starve.

        Oh a note to Chuck:

        Remember I said that the Labor Theory of Value was Trash…

        The problem is that the old model of capital assets does not match the modern corporation or business method. We are a SERVICE economy now, and without labor (knowledge/capabiltiy) counting as a significant asset, the most successful firms are worth very little indeed.

        I brought it up as an example of what we are going to have to consider as the world sovereign debt crisis causes us to rebuild economies.

        To All:

        We are nearing a time of reckoning, and a G12+ Breton Woods II might be the only viable way of avoiding the other little “thing” that tends to solve sovereign debt crises, war, on a world wide scale.

        We are going to need to rebuild EVERYTHING from the ground up. Or nature will take its course.

        r/TMF

  5. TMF — the short answer to your question is that everything in the massive mutual debt equation is governed by human decisions. As long as things are “working” for most, people will accept that their decisions, and those of the leaders, asre guided by the principles of the “mechanism” — in this case, the scheme of debt and leverage from debt.

    At the point when things stop working for too many people, it will make sense to choose other principles for making decisions.

    In my view, that doesn’t have to mean that the fungibility of debt or the average person’s access to borrowing has to shut down, like a mechanism grinding to a halt. Our OTHER conditions don’t have to be static, such as the exploitation of oil, gas, and coal in the United States — or the disadvantage American and European workers have in the government-mandated cost of employing them, compared to the rest of the world.

    I don’t think we can defeat our debt solely by growing out of it, but I do think we can make it more manageable. If I didn’t believe that people are actually happier, more positive, and more optimistic when they are working for desirable rewards — taking pride in and enjoying the fruits of their own labors — I might despair. But I do believe that.

    We don’t have enough people hard enough at work in the modern West, and that is a key source of most of our economic and social problems. The good news is that the more people have the opportunity to work for rewards they define themselves, the happier they will be, and the more revenues will flow to our bloated, overspent governments — which will see their obligations decline because the people are doing more for themselves.

    Global debt isn’t a closed-loop system from which there is no exit. We do need to address the US federal government’s policy of insisting on the growth of bad debt, but the real answer to our debt problem lies in letting people get back to work on their own terms — NOT confined within the limits of unions, political progressives, and self-appointed guardians of the environment.

  6. A tip of the Sooner Hat to JE for the last sentence.
    Just under 50 % of the American population receive some level of wealth redistribution (let us not quibble over 1 or 2 per centage points please ).
    This point has been discussed before by many folks here.
    The ratio of makers to takers is roughly 50%. The baby boomers
    which built a very large, efficient, dynamic economy are part of the problem. We are old and trying to hand off resopnsibilities to children and grandchildren that feel they are entitled to more with less effort.
    The unions are an out dated relic of the past. Their entry into Govt and service areas are a last gasp of a dying organism.
    And last but not least. We are a carbon based economy. We will be for a long time. It will change when the private sector can produce and sustain other power sources for an affordable price for the mass public.
    The progressive do gooders “feel” if we restrict the production of
    carbon fuels, vastly increase the cost of said fuels, we will speed up the conversion process. R&D problems aside, let us return to
    1870 (or pick any 19th century year). Let us say the progressives of that time are tired of scooping poop. It is an environmental hazard after all. In order to speed the transportation revolution to carbon based fuels, the govt mandates price increases on buggies (minimum legal price $10,000), on horses (minimum $10,000), on buggy whips ($2000) .
    Would Henry Ford come any sooner?
    Would oil location and drilling technology instantly appear? Roads and bridge techology would appear overnight. Rubber for tires would just be waiting. Would the Govt. have to expand legal parameters to arrest folks riding in black market buggies?
    The only folks that would be able to afford “legal horses and buggies” would be Govt.progressive do-gooder bureaucrats.
    Let me leave you with three progressive do-gooder words. Cap and Trade. $5.00 gas would just be a fond memory.

  7. Missed most of this interesting discussion because I was on my self-awarded winter vacation, the entirety of which involved exactly zero-productivity.

    Not only is JED determined to protect the right of the Roman Catholic Hierarchy and Rick Santorum to have a veto over the legal entitlements of American Catholics, she is now on the case of the poor Europeans.

    The problem is that (as usual) she deals with a complex issue with a broad sweep of ideologically driven generalizations. Generalizations are what you resort to if you are either too lazy or too stupid to actually understand an issue. I prefer to do my analysis on the basis of evidence.
    1. There is no evidence of a causitive connection between the level of welfare and the current problems being experienced by some European nations. The most generous and comprehensive welfare in Europe is to be found in Germany, the Netherlands, and Skandanavia. These are the European state that are doing just fine and have neither banking nor debt problems. Germany, a nation with 1/4 the population of the US is the 2nd ranked exporter of manufactured goods on the planet in terms of absolute value. The US is 3rd.
    2. The cause of indebetdness is not spending on welfare per se. It is spending more than you earn on welfare, defence, or public-service and military pay and pensions. It is also caused by undercutting your tax-base by failing to enforce the tax-code or giving tax-breaks to the rich or other elites. Greece and some of the southern and so-called “new european” countries are in a mess because productivity is crippled by corruption, disorganization, and indolence. Greece has one of the least generous welfare systems in the EU. Greece’s real problem is that paying taxes and working are optional.
    3. Ireland had one of the most productive economies in the EU, and one of the least generous systems of welfare provision for its citizens. It’s problems are similar to ours – “light-touch” banking-regulation and a resulting credit-bubble which burst leaving its banks bust, property-values depressed, and massive public and private indebtedness.
    4. France, which had a nominal 35 hour week for some employees, has all but abandoned it. In any case it never applied to most of the workforce. France is another country with a very generous HEW provision which is exporting its way out of the downturn. In the last quarter France registered growth ahead of even Germany, and its economy has overtaken that of the UK again.

    I trust this will leave you with a more nuanced understanding of what happened in Europe.

  8. ….”The epic economic error of the modern West lies in its determination to discourage production…’…..

    of course the error here is the gross absurdity with equating regulation with discouragement.

    you can’t make the case, so you simply state it …without justification.


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