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Michael Boskin: Stimulus 'mostly a tragic waste of money'

economic-viewpoints(2).jpg In just over 18 months on the job, President Obama has tackled a domestic economic agenda as ambitious as any president's in half a century -- signing a record $787 billion stimulus package and pushing a far-reaching financial regulatory overhaul bill through Congress.

The Washington Post asked Michael Boskin, a Stanford University economics professor, and Martin Neil Baily, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, to grade the Obama administration's performance in stimulating the economic recovery.

Boskin was chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers for George H.W. Bush, and Baily served as the chairman of the same council under Bill Clinton.

Here's Baily's view.
Below is Boskin's view:

Any policy must be graded by netting its short- and long-run direct effects, indirect effects and costs, then comparing them both to doing nothing and to sensible alternatives. While President Obama inherited the recession and financial crisis, the Administration's stimulus measures (primarily the $862 billion February 2009 stimulus bill) have been mostly a tragic wasted opportunity. Those who say it produced no benefits at all are overstating the case, but the stimulus bill was poorly designed to deal with the basic problem: massive layoffs and rising unemployment in 2009. For less money it could have been far more effective in limiting unemployment, e.g. with 1) a partial payroll tax holiday on employers and employees, an idea I and others suggested in 2008 and early 2009; 2) speeding up future spending in the United States that would have to be done anyway, such as replenishing depleted military supplies, an idea suggested at the time by Martin Feldstein.

The stimulus has had a small, short-term impact for very large long-run costs; every dollar of the $862 billion of debt will mean a dollar plus interest of higher future taxes, which will slow future growth. It did prevent--more accurately, delay--some pay cuts and layoffs for state and local government employees, but it had only a small impact on consumer spending and business investment. It has delivered a lot less than the Obama Administration claims.

The stimulus was captured - Congress gets much of the blame -- by a predictable if unfortunate combination of social engineering and pork on the one hand, and a big-government anti-market ideology on the other, all justified by an exaggerated Keynesian economics. The spending was slow - remember the promise of "shovel ready" projects? For example, whatever its long-run merits, green energy spending in 2011 (some on imports) has little to do with saving private sector jobs in 2009.

The 2009 tax rebates in the stimulus bill were ineffective at stimulating consumer spending, only marginally more effective, based on contemporaneous data on disposable income and consumer spending, than the 2008 Bush tax cut, which had almost no impact.

Cash for Clunkers and the home-buyers' tax credit shifted some purchases forward but appear to have had little or no effect once netted against the subsequent large declines when they expired. Any serious cost-benefit test -- dollars spent per gallon of gas or ton of carbon emitted saved -- makes Cash for Clunkers look ridiculously expensive, for example.

The foreclosure relief program, revamped several times, thus far has affected less than 10 percent of the 4,000,000 number President Obama originally heralded. Actually, that's not surprising, as had it been more successful in getting lenders to write down principal, it would have created a stampede of underwater mortgagees stopping payment to qualify for the subsidy.

Importantly, President Obama's other policies were -- and remain -- a headwind to recovery. His health reform raises costs, as would his energy policy, and the great uncertainty as well as higher costs when and if enacted, were no friend to hiring. Ditto for the impending tax increase.

The best that can be done going forward is the following:

1. We have a very large impending tax increase on Jan. 1, 2011 (roughly $200 billion-plus per year). Whatever anyone's opinions are about the specific pieces, it's a really dumb idea to have a big tax increase that will be a headwind against a strong economic recovery. Here, President Obama should heed the research of his own CEA Chair, Christy Romer, that tax increases are extremely contractionary. The simplest and by far the best thing to do to help the economy would be to extend the tax cuts immediately. I would like to see the lower rates made permanent, but at least extend them for two years.

2. It would be even better to make the rate cuts permanent and combine them with effective control of spending, enacted now, that grows rapidly enough to bring the spending share of GDP much closer to historic norms. This would allow us to:

3. Get the deficit and debt under control. The Obama Administration's goal of balancing the primary (excluding interest) budget - outsourced to the Bowles-Simpson Commission because the President's own budget doesn't come close - would stabilize the debt/GDP ratio, but at a dangerously high level, almost 80 percent, roughly double the level he inherited. That leaves us vulnerable to a future crisis, with little flexibility to respond. Far more spending control is necessary to bring the debt/GDP ratio back to a safety zone of below 50 percent;

4. The Fed needs to be on a clearer, more predictable glidepath back to normalcy (as fiscal policy would be if points 1-3 above are implemented) in its extraordinary use of both its balance sheet and interest rate policy. While loose monetary policy was one cause of the bubble and bust, the response has been helpful in cushioning the severity of the downturn, along with the automatic stabilizers in the tax code (far larger and more potent than the stimulus bill) and natural business cycle dynamics;

5. Reinvigorate stalled trade liberalization;

6. Eliminate the anti-business, anti-market rhetoric and move to clearer, sensible regulations that appropriately balance benefits and costs, and which regulators actually enforce;

7. Enact real financial reform; the current bill has some good, bad and ugly elements, but it left out very important reforms such as enhanced bankruptcy and dealing with Fannie and Freddie.

I supported Treasury Secretary Geithner's stress tests as necessary to get a handle on the overall size of the problem as well as the situation in specific banks. Let's hope he is correct that time and profitability will enable financial firms to rebuild private capital while the bad assets gain in value before a new crisis emerges. If not, failure to implement predictable enhanced bankruptcy as part of financial reform will be very costly.

michael-boskin.jpgMichael J. Boskin is Tully M. Friedman Professor of Economics and Hoover Institution Senior Fellow, Stanford University. He served as Chairman of President George H.W. Bush's Council of Economic Advisers from 1989-93.

By Ariana Eunjung Cha  |  July 19, 2010; 8:00 AM ET
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"It would be even better to make the rate cuts permanent and combine them with effective control of spending, enacted now, that grows rapidly enough to bring the spending share of GDP much closer to historic norms."

It would be even easier to get our Magic Sparkleponies to fix everything, and about would even make more sense, policy-wise.

Posted by: mcconnor | July 19, 2010 12:28 PM | Report abuse

Dr. Boskin, I believe your former boss called what you're selling "Voodoo Economics".

Posted by: tennesseemoonshiner | July 19, 2010 12:30 PM | Report abuse

Typical Republican rhetoric.

Posted by: Anonymous | July 19, 2010 12:45 PM | Report abuse

Why not rejigger the tax cuts so that more relief goes to the poor--also being back the estate tax so billionaires like Steinbrenner are taxed when they die.

Posted by: Anonymous | July 19, 2010 12:45 PM | Report abuse

If Boskin had known anything about economy, old Bush would not have been an one-timer.

Posted by: Anonymous | July 19, 2010 12:45 PM | Report abuse

Trickle down voodo fantasy talk.

Been there done that.

Find new work, sir.

Posted by: Anonymous | July 19, 2010 12:51 PM | Report abuse

That's from a panel of WAPO selected "experts"

Obama a giant failure.

Posted by: Anonymous | July 19, 2010 1:03 PM | Report abuse

Oh for the days when the unemployment rate was under five percent. Just four short years ago.

Posted by: Anonymous | July 19, 2010 1:06 PM | Report abuse

Pure BS. Hind sight is wonderful. He needs to use his crystal ball to tell us where we would be if the actions had not been taken. Working at the Hoover Institute tells me enough about this guy.

Posted by: Anonymous | July 19, 2010 1:28 PM | Report abuse

Pure BS. Hind sight is wonderful. He needs to use his crystal ball to tell us where we would be if the actions had not been taken. Working at the Hoover Institute tells me enough about this guy.

Posted by: Anonymous | July 19, 2010 1:28 PM | Report abuse

"Typical Republican rhetoric."

Your ability to critique the substance of his points is breathtaking.

But hey, at least the facts of this glorious "Recovery Summer" with its 3% unemployment, sudden drop in the Administration's vast deficits, uptick in home sales and consumer confidence and steady drop in foreclosures have shown the wisdom of Obama's pl-- oh, wait. Nevermind.

Posted by: zippyspeed | July 19, 2010 1:29 PM | Report abuse

I love how Republicans can use their crystal ball to know what would've happened without the stimulus but they couldn't use one to know there was no WMD.. or that their man Chimpy had the IQ of an earthworm

Posted by: cmsatown | July 19, 2010 1:31 PM | Report abuse

My question is this. Why did you give Boskin's negative article primary billing? Bailey's requires an additonal action to read. One of the biggest problems we have in the economy is low consumer confidence. You contribute to that condition when you constantly give the negative, and politically motivated authors, primary billing. We have already heard all the Republican negative talking points over and over and over. The truth is they have no ideas of their own. Their primary goal is bring down Obama, and the country with him if necessary. You are enablers by your editorial policies.

Posted by: cdierd1944 | July 19, 2010 1:37 PM | Report abuse

"Trickle down voodoo economics!"

Liberal Translation:

"Can't refute anything this guy says."

Posted by: Jeff08 | July 19, 2010 1:39 PM | Report abuse

Bend over for business is all this clown can suggest? Oh, and enforce regulations. Boskin is talking out of both sides of his mouth. In line with the GOP misinformation, he both blames Obama for the legislative failures forced by the GOP obstructionist Senators and then suggests the failed policies of the previous GOP administrations as the solution. And this is an expert? Sounds like a supply side zealot.

Strikes me that we've all been bent over too far and too often to pander to business interests. Free markets do not guarantee success and profits. There is risk and the American business class, as represented by the GOP, keep insisting that they cannot tolerate reasonable risk. Paying living wages is a reasonable risk. Having real regulation for the good of public health and safety are reasonable risks. Providing for a safe and healthy society is a reasonable risk. These are the risks that have to be born by those conducting business. It is the cost of admission. Don't like it here, take your capital to a third world country and pay the taxes in graft, bribery and enjoy the uncertain future there.

President Obama is consistently, reliably leading back from the edge of economic catastrophe - with the courage, intelligence and good judgement required to balance working with a partisan lobbyist infested congress, an opposing party dedicated to a scorched earth political strategy bordering on treason, and a steady stream of demanding crises. Critics of President Obama offer no solutions, no good faith, no integrity or honesty. Y'all should be ashamed, even as it is clear, you have no shame at all. Lizards.

Posted by: right_as_rain | July 19, 2010 1:48 PM | Report abuse

I particularly like the notation of Freddie/Fannie. But that would be like telling the truth to the American public, wouldn't it.

Posted by: drc231 | July 19, 2010 1:55 PM | Report abuse

At least it was mostly spent here in the US. Paying unemployment benefits, teacher and police salaries, or paving roads isn't the worst thing in the world.

Now, the Iraq war. That has truly been "a tragic waste of money".

Posted by: lauther266 | July 19, 2010 1:58 PM | Report abuse

1) "a partial payroll tax holiday on employers and employees"

2) "speeding up future spending in the United States that would have to be done anyway, such as replenishing depleted military supplies"

Another Republican shot at destroying Social Security and funding run away spending for the military/industrial complex. How predictable.

Posted by: timothy2me | July 19, 2010 2:17 PM | Report abuse

Curious how Obama has thought of every possible employment stimulating idea possible, to spend $800 billion, with little to show for it;
EXCEPT to immediately put tens of thousands of American workers and suppliers to work building the border fence?

Let's see: civil engineers, surveyors, appraisers, heavy machinery manufacturers and dealers, tool and equipment manufacturers and suppliers, steel and fencing, concrete suppliers and contractors, laborers, fencing contractors, food and housing suppliers, operating engineers, mechanics, fuel suppliers, electronics manufacturers and technicians. Four states simultaneously stimulated, with hundreds upon hundreds of miles of work to complete right now!!

Posted by: PPpatriot | July 19, 2010 2:21 PM | Report abuse

It's all about balancing the budget on the backs of the poor.

Nobody questions that we're throwing almost the equivalent of the entire federal deficit down the black holes of Iraq and Afghanistan. They prefer to take the cost of balancing the budget out of the hides of the poor and the elderly.

Posted by: lonquest | July 19, 2010 2:23 PM | Report abuse

Leave to the right-wing war-mongering machine that are the TinkTanks at Stanford, same place that gave us such war-monger and LIERS as Condeleza Rice, Winberger, etc. to pile on MORE LIES and non-sense.

After all this Boskin and the same Stanford U Hoover TinkTank are the same LYING machines that gave us one argument after another argument against Universal nationalized health care something that they have in ALL European countries, Canada, Japan, Australia, in fact all developed nations will lead to economic down turn when the EXACT opposite is true as you can see from European economies doing so much better than US economy as EVIDENT by Euro being so MUCH MORE valuable than the US Dollar.

So lets face the FACT: Republicans are utter complete Lunatics, Obama/Dems are HOAX, and the KEY reason to all this sorry state of affairs is the US (right wing) Media the core problem.

Full FACTs here:

Posted by: Thinkdeeper | July 19, 2010 3:04 PM | Report abuse

Well stated argument for why Obama's policies fall short. I think he hit the nail on the head with "For example, whatever its long-run merits, green energy spending in 2011 (some on imports) has little to do with saving private sector jobs in 2009."

LOL, it is just funny how the stupid liberals on this post just cant seem to grasp this simple concept.

We shouldn't be surprised that they dont get it though, look at how they continue to support a President that hasn't a clue how to stimulate an economy. All liberals think is that if we just do the opposite of what the republicans think it is sure to work! Yeah, that makes sense! Stupid liberals. They are so blind to the ineptitude of this administration it is just scary!

Well liberals wont be able to point the finger much longer. No matter how hard they try, this is Obama's mess now! He is only making it worse by not understand how a basic economy works!

Thanks Liberals! Keep up the good work. We will a third world country in no time!

Posted by: Anonymous | July 19, 2010 3:05 PM | Report abuse

Thanks to the tax cuts that did nothing to help create new jobs. The Republicans got their way in some parts of the stimulaus and then did nothing to support it. The President has tried very hard to be bi-partisan. The worst ideas have come from the "I never saw a wealthy man that did not need more money" Republicans.

Posted by: EarlC | July 19, 2010 3:41 PM | Report abuse

And Dr. Boskin is a tragic waste of oxygen.
Republican policy: create a big crisis, lose an election, blame the next one for the mess they created. Dr. Boskin is obviously an "ivory tower" thinker with no real world experience and no ability to look at the failures of his own policy thought.

Posted by: pjohn2 | July 19, 2010 4:07 PM | Report abuse

First, the facts. Nearly the entire deficit for this year and those projected into the near and medium terms are the result of three things: the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Bush tax cuts and the recession. The solution to our fiscal situation is: end the wars, allow the tax cuts to expire and restore robust growth. Our long-term structural deficits will require us to control health care inflation the way countries with single-payer systems do.
~Christopher Hayes | July 15, 2010

Posted by: Anonymous | July 19, 2010 4:09 PM | Report abuse

"If Boskin had known anything about economy, old Bush would not have been an one-timer."

Hey, then he and Obama will actually have something in common!

Posted by: rmcazz | July 19, 2010 4:11 PM | Report abuse

For all the rhetoric no one can find or support any sustainable tangible benefit of the stimulus. Based upon todays economic statistics such as unemployment and out year forecasts this was a huge "rookie" mistake that will cost all of us for a long time to come. Let's get back to fiscal sanity and off this road to bankruptcy.

Posted by: Anonymous | July 19, 2010 4:19 PM | Report abuse

Extend the TAX cuts. That's the answer to all of our woes. If I remember correctly the TAX cuts were supposed help the rich folks create jobs for us poor folks.
But they didn't.
And don't.

Take this mans advice and do exactly the opposite. That would be good policy.

How stupid is Michael Boskin?

Posted by: Anonymous | July 19, 2010 4:19 PM | Report abuse

Maybe if Bush I had fired Boskin and his rhetoric he might have been reelected. But as I reflect, themselves Clinton could not have handed Bush II such a large surplus to lose. Bush II tax for the rich helped drive the economy in the ditch the Reps think they will make a come back 1 1/2 yrs later. Are people that crazy?

Posted by: Anonymous | July 19, 2010 4:25 PM | Report abuse

Its really frightening that 1) people who held high level posts in government can not do elementary school math and 2) that they have absoluately NO concept of reality.

The Bush Tax Cuts are a major part of the problem for deficits, not part of the solution. Bush inherited a surpplus budget of about $235 billion. Even after 9/11, the country finished with a surplus of about $63 billion (look at the FY 2002 budget). With the Obama $800 billion stimulus, the deficit was about $1.6 billion last year. Taking away that $800 billion, that means Bush left a budget deficit of $800 billion, or a shift of over $1 Trillion between when he came in office and when he left. Part of this was due to the unjustified war in Iraq as well as the tax cuts (and even Bush has ommitted there was no link between Iraq and the 9/11 terrorists), but between the tax cuts and war and - the massive borrowing to fund both - it is clear that the tax cuts are part of the deficit problem, not part of the solution. The numbers are what the numbers are. And the idea that extending the cuts would improve jobs the jobs outlook is also false, as the unemployment rate during the Bush presidency was NEVER equal or lower to what they inherited from Clinton before the tax cuts. The unemployment rate was ALWAYS higher once the tax cuts where made. Again, the numbers are what they are.

As for trusting private businesses - which ones? Wall Street? The banks who helped caused this problem and where bailed out by the Bush Administration? Who then used the money to pay themselves bonsus as a reward for causing the biggest economic meltdown since the great depression? The auto companies who built cars no one wanted to buy? The realtors who had no concern about helping people buy houses they knew they couldn't afford because they would earn a commission when the house was sold and another when it was foreclosed? Or maybe we should look toward different industries, such as the oil companies and how well THEY'VE responded to less government oversight?

Lastly, putting more money into the military is better than the other spending plans? Sorry, but the military budget for this year is about $720 billion. Inflation adjusted from 2000, it would be about $400 billion. How much LOWER is the unemployment rate due to the extra $320 billion in spending? Or maybe Boskin sees that as the solution - kill people off in wars. Once you kill them, their job becomes available, and that reduces the unemployment rate.

Ridiculous. Or it would be if so many people weren't being hurt by Bush's policies already.

Posted by: Anonymous | July 19, 2010 4:55 PM | Report abuse

Did Congress ask the American public if we could even afford to fight two wars at the same time while our own infrastructure crumbles? Republicans and their mantra of tax loopholes for the rich, corporate welfare, and let Main Street be damned are going to get their just reward in November I hope. There is no common sense or sense of fairness for the American middle class. IT'S GONE.

Posted by: drowningbear | July 19, 2010 5:13 PM | Report abuse

My issue with this is not so much the contents of Mr. Boskin's analysis, as there are always two (if not more) sides when it comes to the opinions of economists. My issue with this is how the Washington Post posted the article, highlighting Mr. Boskin's analysis and all but hiding Mr. Baily's counterpoint analysis. Also, Mr. Boskin's analysis is MISQUOTED. He says that the administration's stimulus programs have been "mostly a tragic wasted opportunity," not a "waste of money." He then goes on to say that there have been some benefits, just that it was poorly designed in his opinion. Mr. Baily's counterpoint should be given equal time--his opinion is generally that we're on the right track, and the stimulus helped, but we are still in the dumps because we were on the brink of depression and it will take some time to get back to where we were.

Posted by: joemomma3 | July 19, 2010 5:36 PM | Report abuse

The article is ignorance to the nth degree. We don't make things here and have an economy driven by sales and service. Financials account for 40% of GDP completely out of line with the 20% in 4 decades of growth after WWII. Most of stimulus money went into the economy with over 250 billion in unemployment and over 250 billion in tax cuts. Fannie/Freddie sold half the subprime/sub a mortgages and bought the liabilities of over 70% with a portfolio having a 20% higher book value than the current selling prices, TARP was supposed to buy those assets but the big boys were bailed out instead by Goldman agents Bernanke/Geithner buying AIG (no legal authority) then paying 100% on the dollar for a bankrupt corps liabilities. They did not force the big banks to lend forcing credit card use and revenues for the big banks while regionals went under in record numbers. The article wants a payroll tax holiday, another tax reduction for big business and budget cuts to be determined. Sounds like the failed GOP Reaganomics platform with a bone thrown toward regulators (probably due to the oil spill). Without GM's bailout, 1/2 trillion spent by gov't tax cuts/unemployment, 100 billion for states to retain workers, cash for clunkers and the $8000 homebuyers credit there would be a trillion dollars less spending pushing us into a depression. The military already has too much backup supplies with a good 20% thrown away after being dated. With an article like this the writer has the bonafides for AEI, Carnegie or any of the other yellow journalistic right wing think/write tanks. If anything stimulus spent far too little building things which would have created jobs, the infrastructure improvements could not be financed at the state ends during this recession. Taxes on the wealthy should be increased to finance an investment tax credit for investment in the US only. Giving Wal Mart billionaires extra coin to open another factory in China is insanity.

Posted by: jameschirico | July 19, 2010 5:47 PM | Report abuse

Herbert Hoover is alive and well. Boskin and Baily make the same arguments that the Hoover and Mellon made during 1930-32: if we cut taxes we can grow our way of the problem.

Posted by: Anonymous | July 19, 2010 6:00 PM | Report abuse

Well, points 1 and 3 are contradictory. How can you get debt under control AND have tax cuts? You need the revenue to help pay down the debt. Also, money doesnt disappear into a vacuum. The stimulus money went into someones pockets somewhere.

Posted by: garrett66 | July 19, 2010 6:09 PM | Report abuse

Except tat its billionaires that have a tax increase on January 1, 2011. I don't know if middle class, poor people have a tax increase then but the same rule applies of putting it behind you so that you don't have to face it in the future. Get on top of it before it get's on top of you. Money, bills, are subject to this rule. When Bush signed the tax cuts for the wealthy, he gave it a time it would lapse by. In other words, he just kicked your guys responsibility down the road. He didn't end it. This was your credit card. You wanted it. But now that credit card has come to collect. I want my money,that you should've paid the nation,just like I do on April 14 every year,but didn't because you thought you were above it all. Cry Me a River about your situation.

Posted by: Anonymous | July 19, 2010 6:09 PM | Report abuse

Economists really need to compare Obama's actions with FDR's. They used the same approach and philosophy. Check the charts and the timelines; we're headed into the same kind of famine as that of 1933. If the government is going to do anything useful, it will plan ways to ameliorate that.

Posted by: Anonymous | July 19, 2010 6:36 PM | Report abuse

The Middle Class should remove all their money from Wall Street.Put your money in local FDIC insured credit unions,and boycot Wall Street predators. Try other ways to invest in retirement. Middle Class America should break the back of Wall Street.The SEC did not penalize Goldman Sachs...The Pocket Lint Settlementwas equivalent to 15 days of profits that Goldman Sachs regularly brings in.STOPPING THE PRIVILEGED TROUGH…CLOSING THE PORK BARREL FRAUD.VOTE OUT ALL INCOMBENTS NOVEMBER 2010.MOST ESPECIALLY, Congressional Reform Act of 2010...we have to change our representation and limit Congress and Senate terms WITHOUT a lifetime pension attached. I am not neo conservative. I am not bleeding heart liberal. I am not pure tea
bagger.What I do want, is more State rights so that the average ma and pacan start having a stronger voice in their own government.

Bring fiscal responsibility back to the United States…for the masses…instead of the privileged.

Stop all the foreign aide and foreign wars for imperialism and


30 million unemployed….actuality of somewhere around 30% unemployment total.

Is Obama an imposter? Does Wall Street own the Obama Administration?

The Stimulus was unconscionable.

Wall Street paid a settlement fine that is less than .0001% of the long term global damages caused.

No criminal charges have been made against any Wall Street Insiders.

No Wall Street predators have been removed from their jobs or responsibilities.

All of these criminals can continue to work towards the next panic.

Wall Street could have at least paid for the long term unemployment of 30 million + US Citizens.

Congress and Senate will not continue to cover the long term unemployed.

Obama files a lawsuit against Arizona for trying to protect their state fiscal budget against

the illegal Mexican invasion and drug lord activities.

Obama failed to listen to Volker. Obama failed to add the Glass Steagall Act into the Financial Overhaul bill. Wall Street and the Banks are not controlled to prevent another catastrophic failure. Instead of aiding the 30 million unemployed, Obama gives stimulus money to the VERY PREDATORS themselves...go figure. Bush-Cheney have spent 2 trillion + per year in 3-4 foreign totaling somewhere around 20 trillion in imperialistic DoD contracts.... But America is no safer from terrorists... The Middle Class is delusional. All of this excessive money benefited the richest of the rich. The Middle Class will never again get support for a better U-N-I-T-E-D America. Unless you start voting and getting involved.

Even the wealthiest hold out their hand for American tax dollars from US.
Look at all the stimulus dollars that went to a subprime ponzi scheme Wall Street
that created a catastrophic financial blow hole.

Posted by: ganttbarb | July 19, 2010 6:52 PM | Report abuse

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