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Saturday, October 22, 2016

Most consumers understand that when you pay an above-market premium, you shouldn’t expect to get a below-average product. Why, then, is this principle often ignored when it comes to managing billions of dollars in public pension systems?

This is one of the most significant questions facing states and cities as they struggle to meet their contractual obligations to public employees. In recent years, public officials have shifted more of those workers’ pension money into private equity, hedge funds, venture capital and other so-called “alternative investments.” In all, the National Association of State Retirement Administrators reports that roughly a quarter of all pension funds are now in these “alternative investments” — a tripling in just 12 years.

Those investments are managed by private financial firms, which charge special fees that pension systems do not pay when they invest in stock index funds and bonds. The idea is that paying those fees — which can cost hundreds of millions of dollars a year — will be worth it, because the alternative investments will supposedly deliver higher returns than low-fee stock index funds like the S&P 500.

Unfortunately, while these alternative investments have delivered a fee jackpot to Wall Street firms, they have often delivered poor returns, meaning the public is paying a premium for a subpar product.

In New Jersey, for example, the state’s alternative investment portfolio has trailed the stock market in seven out of the last eight years, while costing taxpayers almost $400 million a year in fees. Had the state followed the advice of investors like Warren Buffett and instead invested its alternative portfolio in a low-fee S&P 500 index fund, New Jersey would have had more than $5 billion more in its pension fund. In all, as New Jersey plowed more pension money into alternatives, its pension returns have routinely trailed median returns for all public pension systems.

It is the same story in other states that have been increasing their alternative investments.

In Rhode Island, Democratic state treasurer Gina Raimondo’s shift of pension money into alternatives has coincided with the pension system trailing median returns. Had the state generated median returns, it would have had $372 million more in its pension system.

Likewise, a Maryland Public Policy Institute study shows that returns from that state’s $40 billion pension system have trailed the median for the last decade. Had the state met the median, it would have $3.2 billion more in its pension system — an amount the study’s authors note is enough to “award 80,000 poor children with $40,000 four-year college scholarships.”

It is a similar tale in North Carolina, Kentucky and many other locales. In short, public officials are spending more and more pension money on high-fee alternative investments, and those investments are generating worse returns than other low-fee investment vehicles.

That brings back the original question: Why are pension funds pursuing such an investment strategy? Some of the answer may have to do with the same psychology that encourages the gambler to try to big-bet his way out of deficits. But it also may have to do with campaign contributions. After all, many of the politicians who have been pushing the alternative investments just so happen to benefit from Wall Street’s campaign contributions.

That spotlights a pernicious dynamic that may be at work: The more public money that goes into alternative investments, the more fees alternative investment firms generate, the more campaign contributions are made by those firms, and thus the more money politicians devote to alternative investments, even as those investments deliver poor results for pensioners. It is a vicious cycle whereby the financial industry wins and taxpayers, once again, lose.

David Sirota is a senior writer at the International Business Times and the best-selling author of the books Hostile TakeoverThe Uprising, and Back to Our Future. Email him at [email protected], follow him on Twitter @davidsirota or visit his website at

AFP Photo/John Moore

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  • TerryW

    Another vicious cycle, more thievery of the people and no
    doubt an example of the reason Citizens United hasn’t been overturned by
    Congress. What’s more important to a politician, the lives of the people he/she
    represents or campaign contributions? And that’s the problem.

  • Dominick Vila

    At the risk of appearing naive, I would say that the decision of so many State and County governments to invest pension funds in “alternative investments” is driven by the emphasis or focus on lower taxes, which are often inadequate to meet basic needs, such as infrastructure repairs and help to our most vulnerable citizens, leaving no choice to Governors and county executives but to borrow from pension funds to provide minimal services.
    People must understand that the services we get, from all levels of government, are not free and that government depends on taxation as a source for the revenue it needs to function. If we want strong national security, law enforcement, effective education, healthcare, transportation, and other such services, we better be ready to pay for them. Otherwise, don’t complain when those services are substandard or outright inadequate.

    • TZToronto

      And who will be yelling the loudest when everything falls apart? The very people who wanted to eliminate taxes, of course. But they’ll still be demanding lower (or no) taxes on corporations and that taxes be increased on the poor and what’s left of the middle class. (Don’t want to impoverish the job creators, after all.) . . . Oh, and they’ll be blaming the whole mess on liberal tax and spend policies. I almost forgot that part.

  • dana becker

    “It is a vicious cycle whereby the financial industry wins and taxpayers, once again, lose.”

    And it is doing exactly what it was designed to do. Leave taxpayers on the hook to pay any pension deficits.

  • ps0rjl

    Will Rogers once said “We have the best congress money can buy.” If anything that has gotten even more true as it has now trickled down to the states. And what do the states do when there is a pension shortfall or no money for infrastructure repairs? Why they blame the public employee unions and teachers’ unions. After all it can’t be their inept management.

  • howa4x

    There is also a political gain from investing on Wall St. Governor Christie invested 200 million of the NJ State pensions in a hedge fund run by Republicans called Elliot Assoc. They charged the state 8.6 million in fees. One of the partners Paul Singer made a contribution of 1.25 million to the republican governors assoc in Christie’s name out of his exhorbinent fees. This is the man who wants to be president and he is showing you how corrupt he is right now as governor. It is a kickback pure and simple, or typical NJ politics

  • charleo1

    As has been mentioned, the private money that effects public policy, is an
    element in the mishandling of these pensions. Most set up a long time ago,
    as time is measured in such matters. When the public sector had to compete with a private sector that had, in 1967, a 37% unionized labor force. Once upon a time in America, in the majority of those now, long gone, private sector jobs, there were livable wages, health insurance, paid vacations, and nice employer provided pension plans. Now, the politicians, at the behest of big business, and Wall Street, have managed to whittle the unions in the private sector down to 7%, and falling. And those dinosaur, pension plans in the public sector, are the next target. And so, as things just seem to keep getting worse for labor. One the last vestiges of the shrinking American Middle Class, pensions. Are as we speak, being happily hacked away at, and defunded. The thing is, that even though most State Constitutions require annual contributions to these plans. Most State plans haven’t been fully funded in more than 20 years. And the people who are charged with managing them, a lot of them, don’t like them. Being hired by the same Right Wing politicians, that, like their billionaire, and corporate benefactors, long for the day, when the State Courts they are building, allow them to be liquified, and folded into the State’s general operation fund.
    I was reading a CNN Money Watch article the others day, That reported, those earning at least, $39,000, the lowest earning group reported to have a net egg at all. Had accumulated an average of $13,000 in savings by retirement age. That’s after a lifetime of work. And a depressing 67% of all groups said, they were having to carry mortgage debt into their retirement, as well. And that’s today’s retirees. What’s that going to look like, if working people lose as much ground over the next 30 years, as today’s workers have lost over that time period? And remember, they want to privatize Social Security. So, what do we think the Country would have looked like, in the fall of 2008? With the Stock market losing trillions of dollars in a single afternoon? Then, more trillions evaporated, as one bank after the next, was found to be insolvent. As one house of cards, took down the last. Thankfully most of today’s Seniors were insulated from the harshest parts of the latest recession. Their health insurance guaranteed by Medicare, and their incomes of Social Security, and most mutual funds, being pulled out of the fire by the government, standing good, and co-signing for Wall Street’s gambling debts. But you can’t talk to some people. They’re just as sure as they can be, about everything. And will be until, God forbid, the GOP ever manages to get every piece of their agenda in place, and we’re all put through the ringer.

    • CPAinNewYork

      Isn’t it amazing how so many seniors proudly describe themselves as “conservative,” when in fact it’s the rightwing Republican politicians who are screwing the seniors out of their pensions and medical plans through hedge fund takeovers and legislation?

      They’re like lambs being led to the slaughter.

      • Whatmeworry

        Seniors?? And your a CPA. It must be an honorary degree like Baraks JD

      • charleo1

        Like I said, you just can’t talk to some people. What they are being told is, the Democrats are spending the Country into oblivion, expanding the welfare state to now include cradle to grave government benefits, to people that haven’t worked a day in their lives! And won’t work, because that’s the culture the Democrats have purposely created, to keep the lay a bouts voting for them. And they go on to tell them, you must vote for us, so we can stop this before we run out of money, and can’t pay those like yourselves, who do deserve your benefits, and we want you to have them. Because you worked for them. So their narrative becomes one of victimization. That they are the ones being victimized, and in danger of being robbed of their benefits. And when we’re broke, they warn them. And they hammer them with this, every day. Then guess what happens to you! This is what their base hears every time the GOP is not in the majority. And when they are. When they get back in control, like with Bush. The retired folks don’t hear a word about their benefits being in jeopardy. Yet they do everything in their power, spend every nickel they get their hands on, to run up enough debt. So that when the Democrats are back in, they can then make another run at these programs. Say, these pensions, and SS, and Medicare, are just all unsustainable. And all these Democrats want to do is, tax and spend, tax, and spend!

      • Matforce

        There will be a day of reckoning for the profit protectors (aka Republicans) in our representative form of government, when the curtain is pulled back on the rhetoric and the sound bites have been thoroughly researched by our slumbering middle class (we the people).
        Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned…, or an electorate that realizes that they’ve been used to craft their own demise!

        • 1standlastword

          Drinks will spill and blood will flow!

  • What we’re talking about in other words, is this whole set-up is a
    scam! And given that there’s so much corruption in the system itself,
    why doesn’t it switch over to the system used by public officials for
    their pension holdings? Are we seeing some sort of pattern to the fact
    that the pension systems for public employees, Detroit, Maryland, Rhode
    Island & of course & of late, New Jersey, are being somehow,
    ‘raided’ by the states b/c of their lack of discipline, forecasting or
    again, outright corruption, what’s the problem of taking these
    investment dollars off wall st. & put them into Green Energy funds
    or set them aside into a long-term annuity, that simply earns interest?
    I’m no financial wizard by any stretch, but what happened in N.J. can
    & R.I. can happen anywhere & in fact, is beginning to more &
    more, w/the average, working person paying the ultimate price – being
    robbed by another corrupt element of our compromised Civic Culture that
    has been infiltrated by conservatives…

    • CPAinNewYork

      The “campaign contributions” that the money managers give the politicians are unethical but legal. One has to ask how much the money managers give as “kickbacks” in cash and nonmonetary “favors” to the politicians.

      The entire system is corrupt, as has been demonstrated year-after-year. I notice that the article omits New York, which is another state that has demonstrated a high degree of corruption in its public investment area through a practice called “pay to play.”

  • 14hei

    Is this not a direct pay-to-play example? An under the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision illegal! I think so! But who can predict the sock market? Obviously not these clowns. But the laughs are on us. So come this November election show them who will have the last laugh!

  • Whatmeworry

    Its ong pastime forhe elimination of defined pension plns for govtwrers.

    • charleo1

      Pretty sure about that, are you? That 401Ks are fine. And there’s
      something wrong with knowing how much you’re going to have to
      live on, and having that amount guaranteed? Too good for regular
      folk eh? And Wall Street Bankers are more than trustworthy. And
      you’re sure about that too, I suppose? Wall Street has a cute little nickname for guys like you. Who call themselves, Whatmeworry?
      The Mark.

      • Whatmeworry

        Less than 20% of the population has a defined pension plan. Why should govt workers have a better retirement plan than those who have to pay for it.
        If you don’t trust wall st use your matress

        • charleo1

          Because the other 80% need a better retirement, is why. Why are you guys always looking at the regular people, and thinking they have too much? Then look at the rich, and think, they really should get a better deal. Here let’s lower their taxes! Why shouldn’t the guy at Walmart have a pension he can count on? Who is the economy supposed to work for? Only that tiny little fraction at the top? Like the man said. We can have a few extremely rich, and powerful people at the top, with everybody else just getting by. Or we can have a democracy. But we can’t have both. Don’t you see the truth in that?

          • Whatmeworry

            Because I’m an unwilling tax payer. Funding incompetent lazy public employees. The avg Feds compensation is $130,000 a year with O accountability and a 20 hour work week

          • charleo1

            Incompetent, lazy, and claiming Federal employees have no accountability, is a subjective, generalized opinion, and is based on no verifiable data. As is the 20 hour week assertion, just pulled out of your you know what. My daughter happens to work for the
            Federal Gov. at an E-11 level. And is compensated in line with comparable salaries in the private sector.
            And she’s not getting rich on your dime, or anyone

          • Whatmeworry is Dan M Ketter

            He was rejected numerous times for a SES appointment, and is angry/jealous of the civil service and unions, and trolls them. He ended up working his entire career as a “non-union” desk clerk for Ford Motor Company, and a couple of years in the air national guard. Nothing but an angry 66-year old loser.

          • charleo1

            If so, that’s unfortunate. My point to this fellow, and those on the Right, who have been talked into the notion that the rich getting richer, while it’s harder to land that good job, move up the ladder, and hold on to the gains. That all that is the fault of unions, and the poor, that refuse to help themselves. And not the comparatively few very wealthy individuals, and the corporate lobby, that have gradually been able to rig the system. My question to these folks is simple. Who has managed to acquire most of the money, and the power, over the last 30 years or so? That alright, there is a global economy. But, it hasn’t been the unreasonable unions that’s cost us 10 million manufacturing jobs since 2000. It’s trade policies written by corporations, who have paid to get them passed into law. And those policies that have put $60.00 per month labor in Asia, in direct competition with people trying to make a living here. It’s grossly unfair. And, the politicians on both sides of the isle, taking this corporate money, that claim there’s nothing they can do about it, are the liars in this royal screwing of the American public. And people like our misguided friend here, need to turn off their Fox News, and their Glen Beck. Because the outlook over the next 30 years, if we don’t see some major changes, are going to be awful for the majority in this Country, and awful for the Country. And time is a wastin’ It’s imperative that all of the American people need to realize, and soon. That we can have an economy with a relatively few very rich people at the top, buying influence, and calling the shots. Or, we can have a democracy. But, we can’t have both.

          • Whatmeworry is Dan M Ketter

            It’s true. He was just baiting you up on his trolling line. Don’t waste your time with that idiot.

          • Matforce

            Charleo1, this is just so good! NAFTA, WTO, the pending TPP (some are calling NAFTA on steroids), Union busting, then GLB Act, but to seal the deal, our partisan Supreme Court ruling, Citizens United assured that MONEYED INTERST is the only voice we hear, while opposing voices from “we the people” get drowned out by all the rhetorical noise! BRILLIANT!

            See “The Integration of Theory and Practice,” a propaganda manifesto from the right wing think tank, Free Congress Foundation by Weyrich and Heubeck.


            Their prescribed methods would make Joseph Goebbels blush (at least Nazi propaganda had to contain an element of truth…lol!)

          • Whatmeworry

            Its based on experience with over 35 years working with them in various agencies. The 20 hour work week is a data point gleaned from years of looking at computer usage. where playing games searching the web and social media comprises most of the time they are on computers.
            The avg Fed compensation is $130,000 a year with O accountability and a golden retirement parachute paid entirely by me and other taxpayers. So yes your daughter is getting rich over the sweat of the taxpayers

          • charleo1

            I should know at least as much about my daughter,
            as you claim to know, what ALL the Federal employees are doing on ALL their computers. A better group to watch is Wall Street, where the average salary is $360,700. And how much have they cost taxpayers over just the last 5 years? As to accountability, name all the Wall Street Bankers that went to jail for running the economy in the ditch. That would be zero.

          • Whatmeworry

            Hmmm so agree in principle that Frank, Dodds, Waters and Clinton should all be in jail for causing so many banks to go under.
            AS for your daughter suggest you talk to her

          • charleo1

            Oh, THEY caused the banks to fail? And I’m the
            King of Siam!

          • Whatmeworry is Dan M Ketter

            Really Dan? Sorry your bogus disability claim was rejected by VA for your two year stint playing airman in the air guard. That’s taxpayers money you were trying to pocket.

    • JPHALL

      Poor baby! Jealousy ill becomes you. Govt workers are not the only ones with defined pensions. There are still many in the private sector, like executives, with defined pensions.

      • Whatmeworry

        Less t 20% of folks have defined pension plans.When you take govt workers out of the mix the % falls to less than 9%. And No EX don’t have defined plans. Its illegal for EX to have 1 and not employees

        • JPHALL

          YOU OBVIOUSLY DO NOT KNOW MUCH ABOUT THE UNIONIZED STATES! Tell that nonsense to the execs who ran Enron Corp.
          Subject: Re: New comment posted on A Pension Jackpot For Wall Street

          • Whatmeworry

            I know all about unionized states. That doesn’t change the facts just because you want them to

          • JPHALL

            As usually you trolls forget that since the Reagan years, yes unionism has waned. But all those workers did not die off yet. And they still have their pensions, unless they wee stupid and listened to the Repugs like Romney who told them to switch to 401k types. Subject: Re: New comment posted on A Pension Jackpot For Wall Street

          • Whatmeworry

            No it started and dropped dramatically under Carter. Yep and the IOU’s were dropped on the taxpayers

          • JPHALL

            The only IOUs were from companies that were bought by the companies, like Romney’s, who raided the pension funds.
            Subject: Re: New comment posted on A Pension Jackpot For Wall Street

    • Matforce

      Funny how it was just fine when defined contribution plans’ yields were obliterating those of the defined benefit types back when Wall Street returns were in the double digits.
      That was before deregulation fever was in vogue in the financial sector that witnessed the “smartest men in the room” behaving very badly, combined with pressure on those whose job it was to enforce regs. that remained, and the “creative” bonus systems that drove and rewarded sumptuously, unscrupulous practices in the markets crashed the economy…
      Welcome to the world of economic treason, brought to you by the world of moneyed interest, practically writing policy in our Legislature for over 30 years, now…

      • charleo1

        Thank You! I hadn’t read the description of the role of the
        U.S. Congress, as, “economic treason.” But it certainly is an accurate one. It reminded me of a long story, I’ll make very brief, as they both turn out the same way. With millions of Americans losing their livelihoods, running thru their savings, falling back into poverty, and having to start all over again from scratch…Once upon a time, in 1999, there were 3 Congressmen. One was a Senator named, Phil Graham.(R.Texas) The other 2 were House members. Rep. Jim Leach, (R. Iowa) and Thomas Bililey (R.Virginia.) Together, along with the ardent wishes, and no doubt, what had been the generous contributions of some of our largest banks, securities, and insurance companies, towards getting them
        reelected, and keeping them there. Churning out bill after bill, to fulfill their ever profit chasing, dreams. And so came to pass. Introduced was a Bill they named, “The Financial Services Modernization Act,” or The, “Graham-Leach-Bililey Act.” “Modern, ” because it largely repealed the Glass-Stegall Act. Passed by Congress way back in 1933, to help prevent there ever being another Great Depression. So, here are 3 total Republican shills, introducing a de-regulation bill, written exclusively by the same entities it proposed to de-regulate. What could possibly go wrong? Not a thing, according to Republicans. Who never envision anything going wrong, when businesses of any kind, are left alone to do their own regulating, and oversight, on the honor system. So it passed on a technically bipartisan basis. Although the Republicans controlled both chambers of the Legislature, and had since the ’94 mid terms. One Democrat in the Senate agreed with the majority, and 16 Democratic Congressmen in the House, voted for passage. And the Democrat in the WH. Bill Clinton, signed the Bill into law. So now security firms could act like banks, and insurance cos. And both banks, and insurance cos. could now act like security firms. And each could invest in, and control, large bank holding cos. Where neither the SEC, or any other govt. agency was given the authority to regulate, or even look at what was going on. Victory Parties over big govt. and it’s profit killing regulations, were celebrated at the highest levels of corporatocracy. No commoners allowed. They would have a big role to play in all this later. When the house of cards this new de-regulatory freedom allowed them to build, came crashing down on the World economy, less than decade later. Instead of their Wall Street benefactors, they should have listened to the long serving Democratic Senator from Michigan, John Dingell. Such a wise and sagacious public servant, he deserves to be quoted verbatim as many times as is necessary “This legislation will produce too big to fail banks. And would necessarily result in a government bailout.” As we are so often reminded, when we forget history, or I’ll add, when our representatives in Govt. are paid to ignore it. Then, we’re all doomed to repeat it.

        • Matforce

          Excellent commentary, and so true! I will be C&Ping this for future use if you don’t mind… Here’s a clip that touches on your thrust (sometimes a bit dramatic for affect, but on point just the same).

        • Matforce

          I thoroughly enjoyed reading your insightful, thoughtful posts! Before I leave, here is a post I listed long ago, when life slowed down for me and I began looking into the issues: C&P:

          Why is the USA broke(n)? For the answer you’d have to go all the way back to the (roaring) 1920’s.

          The Great Depression was arguably caused by wealth consolidation at the top, while declining income for the workforce resulted in reduced demand for production and the ensuing snowball effect of unemployment, further demand reduction, and the domino effect of curtailed capital investments, the withdrawal of capital when stock prices fell, and finally the bank runs, and the crash of ’29.

          Coming out of the Great Depression, with its lessons fresh on the minds of our nation and its elected officials, policies were enacted to fortify and bolster the middle class. To kick start a recovery, Roosevelt enacted New Deal work programs for the displaced workers like the CCC, CWA, and PWA. Then policies like The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, The Wagner Act, otherwise known as The National Labor Relations Act, and later, the Employment Act of 1946, were measures enacted to fortify the middle class. The Glass-Steagall Act separated the investment banks from commercial banks, and marginal tax rates were set at 90%.

          These measures, it was agreed, were necessary to fortify the middle class (create and sustain a dynamic consumer market), stabilize the financial sector, and practically assure the investment of capital back into the USA.

          These measures were met with bitter opposition and cries of protest from the financial and
          business sectors and their friends and profit protectors in Congress who claimed they were “unconstitutional,” an “infringement on freedoms,”
          “socialism,” etc. … Sound familiar?

          But look at the results! For the remainder of most of the 20th century, the USA cultivated the world’s premier, most prosperous consumer economy. The cumulative effect of employing millions of high wage workers resulted not only in the clearing of retail shelves (demand) and the uptick in production, but in the filling of local, state, and federal treasuries. To get a tax break, our wealthy INVESTED their vast wealth in the USA.

          Together, we were able to achieve the largest expansion in US history, create a “social safety
          net” (Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid, and unemployment compensation), develop the world’s most powerful military, rebuild post WWII Europe and Japan (The Marshall Plan), win the Race to the Moon, AND win the Cold War against the competing Communist system.

          During those years of unparalleled Historic USA expansion and investment, we even had a few
          years when there were budget surpluses (1951, 56, and 57). We also had steady trade surpluses up until around 1975; by then the offshoring of manufacturing jobs (shoe, garment, textile, toys, and electronics) to 3rd world countries to by-pass the high wage US worker began to take its toll.
          Then, by the end of the millennium, GATT and NAFTA, but in 2001, when China (Avg. wage- $1.36/hr., some work for 30 cents/hr) joined the WTO (with MFN status), even our jobs in Mexico
          left for China, and it’s been a steep downhill plunge ever since. (Incidentally, our burgeoning trade deficits exceeded over Half a Trillion $$$/yr. by 2004 and have not diminished!)

          In my view, our middle class got fat and happy and left the fight for their slice of the American Pie to “someone else,” but in the business sector, their eye never wanders from the bottom line. They continued to probe the fences for weaknesses so they could reclaim their “losses” to US labor.

          FTAs incentivized the jobs exodus to offshore sweatshops and introduced the “global economy” where “multinationals” and “transnationals” continue to monopolize world commerce. The Gramm, Leach, Bliley Act, initiated the
          deregulation fever that created the lucrative bonus systems on Wall Street and
          witnessed the “smartest men in the room” behaving badly, then Citizens United, Super PACs, in our “pay-to-play” legislature we have today purchased our elections. Marginal taxes on our top earners were continuously reduced since the 50s and 60s until today where marginal rates are around 35% (they were dropped to 28% throughout the 80s) and capital gains (where most of the earnings of the wealthy reside, have been reduced to somewhere around 15%
          about half the rate the middle class pays… All of these bills advanced the interests of BIG $$$, and the by-pass of the spoiled, fat and complacent US
          middle class (aka: we the people). And now, after 30 years of favor for our “job creators” (how disingenuous), and the decimation of the middle
          class, the USA has her tit in a ringer!

          Ironically, no sooner had the USA won the Cold War, proving to the world that capitalism,
          combined with a prosperous middle class consumer market was a system that really worked, than capitalists went about proving Karl Marx right about how unchecked capitalism works.

          And now, after just 30 years of legislative favor, we’re back to pre-Great Depression conditions where corporatists have managed to garner all of the gains to themselves that they were once required to share. Our Utopian (sophisticated
          and expensive) society is going broke, and guesses who is making record gains again?

          We’ve forgotten the lessons of the past.

  • charles king

    Microsoft,S T O P H A C K I N G M Y Machine