Friday, May 15, 2015

A pocket guide to financial disaster


     Personal experience is overrated. People fancy their closeness to a situation gives them the last word: "Look buddy, it happened to me, I know." When it can just as easily blind them. "I hate Mexicans because I went to Mexico in 1967 and got food poisoning . . ."
     Okay, thank you for your valuable insight.
     So let me start by sharing my bias, and you can decide whether it provides clarity or confusion. In 2009 when Jim Tyree wanted to buy the Sun-Times, the deal offered was the union would surrender seniority, take a 15 percent pay cut and lose our pensions. The choice was that or the newspaper would fold.
     We didn't snap at the deal. In fact, the union rejected it on the first vote. I was the only one, in my recollection, to speak in favor of the deal, and here is what I remember saying, "I'm a Jew and we survive. The purpose of the union is to protect our jobs at the newspaper, but if there's no paper and no jobs, then it really doesn't matter if the union is sound or not." We took the deal, and while I'm sorry to have to work like a hamster on a wheel until the day I die, I've never for a moment regretted taking it. Six extra years at a big-city paper is something.
     So now the come-to-Jesus moment for Chicago's pension fiasco looms. The Supreme Court spiked the fix that our political geniuses spent a year cobbling together because it's illegal. Moody's immediately downgraded Chicago's bond rating to junk status. Which means that massive borrowing, the only thing keeping the city afloat, just got even more expensive. And it's going to cost even more to borrow money, assuming Chicago can find folks reckless enough to lend to it to us.
     What to do? I heard one expert say that digging out of the pension hole will take a 40 percent property tax hike. No, said another, make that 49 percent.
     Let's review, for those who haven't been paying attention. (This problem is not only a tribute to the short-sighted cowardice of politicians, but to the electorate's genius for ignoring gathering disaster.) Politicians gave out pensions — I won't debate whether they're "fat" pensions, let's just call them "pensions" — to government workers, basically promising money the city didn't have and — whoops! — was never going to have. Knowing their own tendency to filch stuff, our leaders built into the law that the pensions, once established, could not be reduced. And the retired folks who receive them, former teachers and electricians and such, worked their various jobs for years, expecting those pensions. It was a promise.
     But you can't give money you don't have. Since it's against the law to cut pensions, Chicago has been cutting everything else. The constitution doesn't demand it provide mental health services or give aid to people with disabilities. No need to pay traffic aides — I didn't see a one downtown at 5 p.m. Wednesday and many Loop intersections were gridlocked, a metaphor for our times.
     These cuts degrade life in the city. That's going to grow worse, as everything gets tossed over the side in order to keep ballooning pensions from capsizing the ship. At some point Chicago will hollow out and become an enormous pension plan that also puts out fires.
     There is no facile solution, just a series of bad choices. A clear-cut sacrifice, like the Chicago Newspaper Guild made, isn't even possible. Retirees can't vote to cut their pensions to save the city and wouldn't if they could. Taxes could be raised, though the common wisdom is that jacking up property taxes or increasing taxes on corporations would cause Chicago residents and companies to flee faster than they already are, leaving those who remain clawing at an ever smaller pie.
     I believe this is referred to as the "death spiral."
     There is no easy solution that doesn't involve going back in time, and the necessary time-travel technology is not in place. Me, I think the city declares bankruptcy and puts the pensioners in line for their dimes on the dollar with all its other creditors. That's bleak. So here, let's end on a light note:
     Anybody wish that Chuy Garcia was on the fifth floor of City Hall? Busily forming his exploratory committee and trying to figure out which wire to cut before this problem sends Chicago up in a mushroom cloud of insolvency? I didn't think so.

80 comments:

  1. The Illinois Supreme Court forgot the famous words of Chief Justice of the US, Robert Jackson: The Constitution is not a suicide pact!

    As for the missing traffic aides, there were always a total waste of money & I sincerely hope they are gone for good.
    Not only did they impede traffic every where they were, because they just parroted the traffic signals, thus slowing down all traffic at each intersection, because they would actually stand in front of the cars to prevent them from proceeding, until the dumb as rocks aides saw that the light had changed, but I had two personal experiences where they would've caused a crash.
    The first was on Streeter Dr. at its north east end, where the parking lot exit is. There were three aides there & none was looking at either of the others & all three told cars to go forward, which if the drivers had followed their "orders", would've caused a three car collision.

    The second was when I was riding a bike east on Monroe at Michigan & the aide yelled at me to continue with my left hand turn. Except she was facing west, to me & I saw there was an old lady, who was using a cane in the crosswalk, so I stopped to let her go.

    The aides were a menace to society, so good riddance if they're finally gone!

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    1. They didn't forget : Illinois pension debt isn't a suicide - it's a curable illness that is deeply unpleasant for years. If the rule of law was as meaningless as "we can break the law if it means our taxes are going to have to go up" we don't have a rule of law.

      My experience with traffic aides is mixed - some as terrible as Clark St. describes (including Monroe/Michigan - it's like they don't know that Monroe is the downtown gateway to the lakefront path), others a notable improvement over the traffic signals. I've seen them on Sundays on the north side and they've definitely helped keep some normally congested intersections moving at an ok pace.

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    2. Are you a tough boss at work, ANA?

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    3. bet you don't spoil your kids

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    4. Some of the people in the toll booth are the worse.

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    5. NS-I have a feeling your comment to your co workers about why you took the deal wasn't a popular one.

      I wonder if your family members ever come on here anonymously.

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  2. Mr. S, Does saying being a Jew, mean anything if you are agnostic or an atheist?

    But on the next note, you have a good idea about the bankruptcy. I'm glad you brought this up since Brown had an interesting and frightening column on it yesterday and I was hoping to hear your take.

    Good point about the hapless Chuey.

    As someone said the other day, why would Rahm even have wanted this job for a 2nd term?

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    1. And here's wishing you and the Sun-Times many more years.

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    2. Of course it does. Many cultural and social aspects to being Jewish, as any other religion.

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    3. True, especially with Judaism.

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  3. Advocate of the Anti-ChristMay 15, 2015 at 6:35 AM

    Declare bankruptcy and CANCEL the debt to the banks--and pay AND increase the pensions.
    Impose an 80% city income tax on suburbanites who work in Chicago and use eminent domain to confiscate and sell all property owned by the Catholic Archdiocese and University of Chicago, and fire all Chicago cops and disband the Chicago Police Department. Open the jails and prisons and let the madmen out. Arm the homeless. Communist Revolution now!

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    1. Take it easy there, Lenin.

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    2. Advocate of the Anti-ChristMay 15, 2015 at 7:30 AM

      Lenin, Stalin, Mao Tse-Tung! Revolution by the young!

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    3. Yes, and they treated their people quite well indeed, cough.

      Surely, you jest.

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    4. Advocate of the Anti-ChristMay 15, 2015 at 11:58 AM

      yes they did, no I don't.

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    5. I wish you could have spent time in one of Stalin's gulags in Siberia, then say that, fool. You need to read a few books on the subject. STart with Alex. Solzhen. can't spell it.

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  4. Like someone wrote in the editorials yesterday for the paper. How about the suburbs imposing taxes on the city residents who come to the suburbs?

    Clark St, thanks for the clarification on the street aides. I feel bad for those who live in the city and the extra fees they pay on cars and property taxes or in some parts deal with bad crime and schools. Rahm isn't realistic about a property tax going up that high. Im so glad we come to the city once a year on a Sunday, visit a museum or some fancy store area then leave, ah peace. Much less congestion and no parking ripoffs.

    There'll be a mass rebellion if people have to pay more prop taxes there to make up for past foolish pols or greedy workers.

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    1. Nice not to have to be under Crook county either and unless you are in some fancy suburbs , no ripoff property taxes.

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    2. real Chicago re3sidents never go to the evil suburbs for anything.

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  5. I've always wondered why government employee unions, at least in Illinois, are so resistant to going from a defined benefit pension plan, to a 403(b) retirement plan. This functions very similar to the 401k with which most of us are familiar. You have the money in your name, and you're free to construct an asset allocation to match you're needs. No one seems to be concerned that much of the money that is set aside for the pension funds, are invested in high risk ventures. Didn't a Daley kid get a tidy sum to play with?

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    1. the vast majority of government employee "pensons" are not tradition pensions as in private industry. they are not something that is in addition to social security; they are IN PLACE of social security.
      trust me, i would have much rather contributed to social security all those years than into the TRS and the CTPF. both those outfits do great work, but the state and city governments have shorted them (and, in some cases, raided them) for years.

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    2. mellowjohn, It's your retirement, but I'm not sure why you'd want to trade for Social Security. Your benefit is often more than twice that of SS, with a much lower retirement age and a 3 percent increase every year.

      A lot of people in SS would much rather have the government pension; it is baffling to hear government workers portray not being in it as a hardship. I would think they would want to keep the comparison a secret.

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    3. mellowjohn, Even if we could send Mr. Steinberg back in time, to warn the politicians of the past, that it is imperative all government pensions be fully funded. I fear he would share the fate of Cassandra, and be dismissed as one of those conservative crackpots. So now, dedicated public employees and taxpayers alike are in the same boat, adrift upon an unsanitary creek, without a means of locomotion,

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    4. lol, unsanitary creek, good one

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  6. Daley ruined this city, between him and his cohorts. The guy should be in jail.

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  7. Robbie the RobotMay 15, 2015 at 7:45 AM

    Frankly, I don't care what happens to you Hu-mans, as long as I can get a nice lube job! Oil Can! And I AM a robot, even though I had to certify that I'm not to post this. Unfair Hu-mans!

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    1. Hey Robbie, you don't have to be a robot to enjoy a lube job - am I right fellows?

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    2. Peter, you are a pervert.

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    3. Robbie the RobotMay 15, 2015 at 12:02 PM

      yes Peter, I know, some of the girls at www.theeroticreview.com are equal opportunity hookers and will do both Hu-mans and Robots. But I've got dips on Eva. She's asian, short, and cute!

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    4. sicko

      this isn't the place for that talk

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  8. Good Lord - I backed Rahm too, but there's something really off-putting about white flight 3%'ers joking about Chuy Garcia's commission. Actually kicking things to a commission often produces the best and most fair policy choices (Simpson-Bowles anyone?) For example, while most of the few ideas Chuy mentioned were fantasy or would indeed cause a flight of businesses to the suburbs (see CBOT transaction tax), are you so certain Neil that the "sue the banks on the toxic swaps" proposal is sooooo meritless that it doesn't deserve a try? I'm sure not, but there's no way in heck Rahm will do it.

    (And some of Chuy's/Lewis'/etc. proposals aren't unfair, they're just political nonstarters. Just like progressives ask the 1% to pay more on a national scale, Chicagoans rightly can ask better off suburbanites (the 1-5%) to pay more to keep Chicago from collapsing. It won't happen because the 2-5% aren't as unlike the 1% as they like to think. It's a political non-starter: state law would have to change, and Mike Madigan knows how suburban blue districts would react to being told "not only are your taxes going up to solve the state's mess, but Chicago's as well." )

    Remember that if the entire city goes bankrupt it effects a lot more than the big bad public union workers (who are indeed bad in many ways). Every city asset will be up for grabs for a court to put on a fire sale for paying creditors. If you thought the parking lease deal was bad, wait until you see that. Then there's no money left over for city services and usually it's the dirt poor who get the worst of it.

    Sell Northerly Island. Lease Midway. Change the law to let CPS go bankrupt (that -would- free a lot of resources, mostly on the backs of CTU and I'm fine with making CPS sell off its closed-school real estate and start afresh).. Keep the red light cameras and put speeding cameras on Lake Shore Drive. And give the toxic swap suit a chance. Taxes will still go up, but not as much.

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    1. That's the downside about finding "something really off-putting" about everything I write, Al-Anon, whether you use those words or not. Economics AO1, when the abundance overwhelms the demand, value falls.

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    2. See, I took B01 (back before they switched to the more traditional 101/201/etc) And as I sometimes say (using a now-dated person to illustrate), if Pat Buchanan says the sun rises in the east, it still rises in the east. Anyway, you're overstating things - I may disagree a lot but it's only when you get all 3% on us that I write I'm offended and if I don't comment or only add something, the silence is usually approval - I just don't have the sunny compliment thing in me (seriously, wish I did). My general take on you is in my response to your obituary post. Else why would I have read you all these years?

      I'd say that this means you don't disagree with any of the substance in that post, but I'm pretty sure I'd be flattering myself.


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    3. A-N-A , good point about suing the banks and the toxic swipe deal. Perhaps you could give Rahm some advice and good one about the 3% flight. If only you could have run for mayor. No, I'm not being sarcastic.

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    4. Anon 8:59 - you realize you've earwormed that Tears for Fears song for me all weekend? Durn you :-)

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    5. The thing is, we know that Chuy's commission would not have been of the hard-eyed sort that Simpson-Bowles was. Chuy was portrayed as a master of urban affairs, but the only proposals he could come up with were totally vague, marginal, or just silly.

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    6. Oh the rules the world one? great song, love the 80's and early 90s music, those were primetimes

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  9. I doubt even a 49 percent hike in property taxes will actually solve the problem. The unions, with the idiotic Amendment and the political Supreme Court behind them absolutely refuse to concede anything. They care about no one by themselves;we have to accept that and treat them like the enemy of the common good that they are. Why shouldn't we? They have always treated us like the enemy.

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    1. Glad to see that the "right to work" bull was stopped by Madigan and co. Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. No unions means min. wage for all workers and no insurance. Stop feeling for corporations and Wall St.

      I know some of the city ones are out of line and have changed from what they were suppose to be doing.

      I saw in a readers feedback piece in the ST today that there's some law that municipalities can't declare bankruptcy. Hope that's not true. Can the state declare it? That could stop some of the other bloated pensions.

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    2. Yeah, good thing. Not one single vote. There are 47,000 City of Chicago employees and 90% of them are in collective-bargaining agreements. The Stacker of Wheat, Hog Butcher to the World has total pension debt of $29 BILLION. Budget-wise, the City takes in about $3 billion, spends about $4 billion. Grand total debt, including pensions, is $63 BILLION which translates to $23,300 PER RESIDENT. Bankruptcy is the only option which will, mercifully, take Chicago out of the municipal bond market for a while.

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  10. Detroit went thru bankruptcy and for a while everything at the DIA could've been sold to cover the debt - cooler heads prevailed and of course Chicago isn't even in the same league with Detroit, but still. This was good: "At some point Chicago will hollow out and become an enormous pension plan that also puts out fires."

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    1. Chicago is in worse shape than Detroit was. Much worse.

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    2. NS, you said Al anon on a post above. I thought that was a group for relatives of those with drinking probs?

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  11. Could it be that the people in charge of these pension funds thought that the rising stock market would cure the shortfalls in government contributions? I haven't heard this mentioned anywhere, so I may be completely off base. Obviously, a prudent manager would take possible losses into account as well as probable (for the optimists) gains. And of course sitting on the time bomb for years and years was cowardly, as Neil and others have pointed out.

    john

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  12. Where's Jackash & Bitter? I'd like to see their comments on this matter.

    Come on Anon not anon, even if you are right some of the time, try to say something good to say. NS isn't always in the wrong. Don't be a curmudgeon. Must be tough being your spouse.

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  13. meant have something good

    so true about the Buchanan comparison-you have to agree at times even with that sort

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    1. Had I known I was hurting his feelings I surely would have! I think one of the downsides of "on screen writing" is that it comes off harsher than it would sound in person (and emojis/emoticons can't make up for it entirely). I suspect we vote the same way 95% of the time if not more.

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    2. People don't want to hear only the negative, not saying one has to agree. With adults as with kids, they like to hear positive too. I don't think you hurt his feelings. NS seems pretty thick skinned. He's just saying, I think, all you ever do is disagree or find fault.

      I have a feeling your parents were tough on you.

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  14. Anon not anon, do you by chance belong to the Mensa society? Exactly, I guess the substance of the post was agreed with or no wiser retorts could be found.

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    1. and I guess your handle is telling someone that you aren't so anon after all

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    2. I may very well be wrong about Mensa, but isn't the qualification that people score in the top 2% of an IQ test? If so, given the number of IQ tests, natural statistical variation, and the different types of intelligence out there, I'm guessing 25% or more of the US population must qualify. And that probably wouldn't include me - I once had one of their books of brain teaser-quizzes and failed miserably.

      Re: the handle - Neil requested that I pick something to distinguish myself from some, er, more succinct anonymous posters that day and I couldn't think of anything witty, hence...

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    3. Well I still say you are at a higher level of intelligence than average.

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    4. I usually get a headache after reading some of your posts, but it's all good.

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  15. Same thing happened to me in Mexico once. Terrible place. But the guys who do my lawn are nice, so I'm confused. Too much information.

    It's fashionable to lay the blame for the pension mess on short-sighted cowardly politicians, but who ever got elected in this state by even hinting there wasn't some magical way to solve fiscal problems without raising taxes? I seem to remember Dawn Clark Netsch doing something like that and becoming an object lesson in how not to win office. And what Mayor ever earned kudos by taking a strike in order to hold the line on union demands?

    Also, I'm a little skeptical about the line that everyone will pack up and leave if their taxes go up. Most people are not Gypsies, with a colorful wagon parked in the yard they can pile all their belongings in for a trek across the state line. And where will they go? I grew up in the great state of Wisconsin, still pay taxes on property there, and often visit. The place is, fiscally, in better nick, but not because it is now, or ever has been, a low tax state. It didn't have anything to do with why I ended up in Illinois, but I do know that my total state and local tax burden would be higher if I moved north of the border.

    And I don't think public bankruptcy is a good idea. States and cities are not corporations., much as politicians on the right like to press the analogy.

    But then, what do I know? I'm still trying to figure out how I feel about Mexicans.

    Tom Evans

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  16. Thanks, Tom. Brings back fond memories of watching half of Tijuana burn to the ground in 1961 or 2, drinking 50 cent pitchers of horrible cerveza and trying to avoid (not always successfully) the cucarachas that bedeviled Pancho Villa in the eponymous song.

    john

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    1. These days there, you'd be kidnapped, held for ransom or shot/ mugged at best.

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  17. Eponymous is a useful word, too little used.

    TE

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    1. Why not? Steinberg does.

      TE

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    2. you show off too, TE and usually aren't even on topic cause you are too busy quoting obscure things

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  18. TE, perhaps they can't just pick up and move but if the working class can't afford the taxes there, their property will go into default. Don't be elitist.

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    1. Poor people losing their homes could be mitigated by making our scandalously regressive tax structure more progressive. So we elitists don't buy the defaulted properties at bargain prices and get outrageous rents for them.

      TE

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  19. Yes, those gypsies are not a good thing. Never mind the pc. If the shoe fits....

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  20. Interesting piece in ST today about the possibility of the Nabisco plant on Kedzie closing. My dad worked there for so many years , retired from there. Those were the days, thanks to unions, without going overboard one can support their family without the lady going back to work when her baby is barely 6 wks old. We lived in the suburbs even then. Mondelez might now move to Mexico, save $. A real shame but that's hwo it is now.

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  21. I'm against cancer treatment in many cases. Just so the hospitals can make big $ for you while you get a few more months of life while undergoing horrid treatments , in and out of hosps and getting weaker and draining your family even with insurance? It's a big business. Sometimes I wonder what treatments are being hidden.

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    1. And if have hmo's even worse, even ifyou have referral and go to the right clinic for tests, they'll send it out somewhere that's not on plan, as if you can control that, then you have to fight with the insur.

      Repubs crit. Obama care but if they had allowed single pay system, not perfect but not the mess that still only helps insur. co. Well at least more got some insur. It's not about some lazy poor but the mid class getting crunched.

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  22. Neil,

    This isn't a comment on the article itself but a "thank-you" for this blog. I've been employed now for six months and your column is still one of the bright points in my day. Thanks again!

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    1. Thanks for reading. Tell your friends.

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    2. I agree, Dave. Let's not take NS for granted. We may not always agree but he is never dull and quite clever.

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    3. He has a witty, writing style and good turn of the phrase, even in one of his books that I read.

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  23. Spent my early years as a proud member of U.S.W.A. Local 65. As a 17 year old married father, I fudged my Birth Certificate to advance my age and became an Employee of U.S. Steel South Works in order to enlist to become a Steelworker. Workers I idolized. Probably because of their resemblance to fighting men, bravely going off to do battle with some huge mechanical beast. Or maybe because I was 17 with a wife and a kid on the way. Through Studs Terkel, and some research of union history during the 1930's, I became a union supporter - realizing the sacrifices others had made just to get workers a little decent and humane treatment.
    Reagan and the 80's, and the unwillingness of Union leadership to realize the changing economic trends of manufacturing, were the beginning of the end for American Labor.
    Unions became too defensive. Trying to protect their own existence, instead of the existence of the companies that provided their members with jobs. And Companies became paper shufflers. U.S. Steel was no longer concerned with being the biggest and best American Based steel producer, they became a corporation that focused on investor return - buying Marathon Oil, and becoming U.S.X.. Our nation gives personhood status to Corporations.. Entities that are basically just Pieces of paper that has the sole purpose of increasing the value of the investors money. To do anything resembling Humanity would cause them to be dissolved.
    The Insanity of seeing Unions as the problem and denying them hard fought benefits leading to their dissolution as the cure might seem reasonable to some, but I don't get it.
    Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, The Memorial Day Massacre, children working 16 hour shifts and sleeping n plant floors - all this could return. Unions were created to bring up the standards for all workers - their dissolution has proven to bring everyone's down.
    Pretty soon American workers will be more like their third world counterparts than ever before, and we'll have only ourselves to blame.
    "We have to shut down. We can't compete against a Vietnamese factory who pays their workers in fish heads and rice." And then that same company moves operations to Vietnam.
    God Bless American capitalism!

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    1. Paul, good that you married the mother of your child, these days some don't bother and I'm not just talking one race. Women are stupid indeed these days, on some of these matters and can't be called sexist cause I am female and not old. Or it's a matter that if they don't marry they get something from the govt. And I know of middle class ladies and guys in the suburbs doing this, not talking about some poor area.

      I was born on the 4th of July(perfect for my line of work) I'm not a blind patriot but don't get mad at the nation per se and what it stood for originally. Get mad at some of the pols instead.

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    2. Well said Paul and so true about mirroring conditions in the Jungle tome by Sinclair. I've reread that more times than I care to admit. But with govt protection and laws now, it can't get that bad, unless some of the gains made in the New Deal are dissolved. Yes, the unions got a bit greedy too, but like my dad used to say, they ripe about giving a worker 10cents more an hour, when they have so much. I know the Teamsters union is one that goes overboard. Still and all , heck with Reagan and the Repubs. Id rather err on the side of the workers even if I'm not in blue collar.
      Great discussion.

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  24. TE-- cities are, in fact, corporations -- municipal corporations.
    My fear is that Neil is even more prescient than a first reading may seem. What is to come is not merely the voluntary sacrifice of pensioners (this will come in givebacks like the Guild's), or then steeply higher taxes ("read my lips"), or then a bankruptcy when all else fails, as it must (numbers don't lie), but rather, all three, in a series. That's a death spiral. Buckle up, it's gonna be a bumpy ride

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    1. Mia culpa. I suppose I should have said 'cities are not businesses.' Consequences of bankruptcy are less predictable and apt to be more far reaching.

      TE

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  25. It's interesting to me that the expectation of the rank and file should be a reduction in pensions while the true abusers and recipients of the system, (administrators, elected officials and judges) will not suffer any losses of their bloated pensions, earned over a limited number of years compared to the rest of us. Why is it always acceptable that lower income earners should be screwed?

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  26. great point, Wendy and so true

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  27. Heard on radio that the Tribune's parent company is buying out the ST. Hope they don't force all commentary to be conservative only.

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