On Trade Policy Boehner leads Obama Follows

by Eric Shierman

How many bad policies need to be adopted to allow Congress to pass the three long delayed free-trade agreements with Korea, Panama, and Columbia that allow us to create jobs without spending money? For politicians pandering to the public’s need for scapegoats on all woes economic it’s two: extending Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) and the Currency Exchange Rate Oversight Reform Act (China currency bill). This is where presidential leadership is needed, but in its absence the Speaker of the House has stepped up to the plate.

The three free-trade agreements passed on Wednesday night with the Korean deal getting the most support while the Colombian deal got less. HR3080 (Korea) passed 278-151 in the House and 83-15 in the Senate. HR3079 (Panama) passed 300-129 in the House and 77-22 in the Senate. HR3078 (Columbia) passed 262-167 in the House and 66-33 in the Senate. The only members of Oregon’s delegation to vote for all three were Greg Walden and Ron Wyden. Pete DeFazio and Jeff Merkley voted against all three. Kurt Schrader and Earl Blumenauer voted for the Korean and Panamanian deals but voted against the Colombian deal.

These trade agreements are such good deals, they should have passed with flying colors long ago through a Congress that is always talking the talk on jobs. The problem is that some Democrats oppose them because the base of their party does so passionately. Why only some Democrats, not most? Unlike their primary voters, Congressional Democrats’ staffers studied at mostly Ivy League schools. Find me an economist teaching at Harvard that advocates trade protectionism.

The evidence that free-trade is beneficial while attempts to curtail it are harmful is so clear, there really is not even a real debate anymore amongst economists. This is especially true for the United States where most of our imports are raw materials and components needed for final assembly. When the Bush Administration levied tariffs on imported steel in March 2002, this did more damage to our domestic auto industry than any wage increases negotiated by the UAW.

Since the two most demonized deals went into effect nearly two decades ago, NAFTA and the Uruguay round of the GATT that created the WTO, American domestic manufacturing has boomed. Yes you read that correctly, US MANUFACTURING HAS BEEN BOOMING. If you listened to these angry mobs that tried to intimidate Earl Blumenauer’s vote, you would think that the peak of American manufacturing was 1977. It was 2007. Having dropped along with the entire world’s manufacturing during this global recession, American manufacturing has rebounded more than 20% since its nadir in 2009, enjoying a faster recovery than most of the world. Of course this is if we measure manufacturing the way economists do, by output rather than the way activists do, by employment under a collective bargaining agreement.

The cause of the decline in manufacturing employment has very little to do with trade. The largest source of manufacturing job loss has been through productivity gains. Are we going to levy tariffs against domestic manufacturers for using bar codes, automation, and lean production processes? Trade gets the blame because it is always too easy to scapegoat foreigners.

The great domestic manufacturing economy that we have today would not exist had it not been for the presidential leadership of Bill Clinton. He forced NAFTA and the GATT through Congress knowing it would anger his union supporters. He did it because it was the right thing to do. The most lucid defense of free-trade ever written is 1997’s Pop Internationalism by Paul Krugman. Indeed Krugman was a specialist in trade policy for which he won his Nobel Prize. Progressives follow Krugman like the gospel on fiscal matters outside of his expertise, but reject sound economic science from the same man.

Unlike Bill Clinton’s leadership, Obama dithers on trade, reluctant to take a firm position one way or the other. Our most professorial president knows the science but leads like a weather vane. He campaigned against Clinton’s trade policies in the 2008 primary, going so far as to promise to renegotiate NAFTA, while letting his economic adviser Austan Goolsbee reassure the Canadians that he wouldn’t. Once elected, Obama of course, didn’t. He largely ignored trade for his first two years. It is only with industry and Boehner’s pressure that Obama finally submitted the three agreements to Congress last week. For his own political cover they were linked to passage of TAA and possibly the China currency bill.

As expensive as TAA is, its cost does not exceed the benefits that the trade deals present. Seeing this linkage as inevitable, Boehner negotiated a curtailed program that reduced benefits to a price Tea Party Republicans could vote for while Obama seemed willing to let the issue languish as a poison pill, letting him voice tepid support for the deals in speeches knowing he would never have to sign them. Now thanks to Boehner, Obama will be able to sign the Korea deal with the president of South Korea by his side in a state visit, looking all presidential for the cameras.

Currency Exchange Rate Oversight Reform Act (China currency bill)

The China currency bill is another story. It seeks to penalize China for the value of its currency. Perhaps the bill’s backers are able to accuse China of devaluing its currency because few Americans read the Financial Times let alone the Wall Street Journal. China has been doing nothing of the sort. They have learned from Japan’s mistakes. Japan did undervalue its currency which by 1990 fueled an equity bubble the likes of which the world had never seen, and Japan has yet to recover from its collapse.

For more than 20 years China has pegged its currency to the US dollar. When we go up they go up; when we go down they go down. This is Bretton Woods not competitive devaluation. When their neighbors devalued their currencies in 1997, China remained a pillar of stability, responsibly maintaining a value of $.12 to the dollar until 2005. Since 2005 the Chinese Yuan has already been allowed to appreciate against the dollar by more than 30%.

If China’s currency floated, it would likely appreciate much more, but why? Because it is the dollar that is falling in value! We are the ones debasing our currency. The Bank of China’s monetary policy has been to peg their currency to our sinking ship.

We need to be careful what we ask for here. To maintain their peg, the Bank of China must buy US Treasuries, mostly 10 year notes. Forget a trade war; what if they actually complied? A sudden drop in demand for US treasuries would raise our long-term interest rates. As the developed world sits upon a global sovereign debt bubble that is beginning to collapse in Europe, this is no time for radical moves of any kind in the bond market. A gradual adjustment that is already playing out is what we need, not shock therapy. How did we come to a point where the People’s Republic of China displays more sound financial judgement than the US Senate?

The Currency Exchange Rate Oversight Reform Act promises to be our generation’s answer to the Smoot Hawley Tariff Act of 1930. Like Herbert Hoover, Obama does not have the will to stop it. It passed the Senate on Tuesday 65-35 with nearly every Democrat voting for it and 16 Republicans joining them. The White House has said very little on one of the most dangerous pieces of legislation working its way through Congress. Once again Boehner has taken the lead. He announced last week that he will not be letting it come to a vote in the House.

From averting us from self-inflicted disaster of either triggering a trade war with China or a flash crash in Treasuries and by cutting a smart deal that links a curtailed TAA to pass along with three job creating trade agreements, Boehner has shown incredible deal-making skills when the will for compromise is in short supply. All of this contrasts with Obama who has managed to anger his base anyway and yet never manages to get a deal through Congress without its Speaker (Pelosi or Boehner) holding his hand.

Eric Shierman is a partner at Creative Destruction Investment Partners, writes for the Oregonian under the pen name “Portland Aristotle” on the MyOregon blog, and is the author of the forthcoming book: A Brief History of Political Cultural Change. His articles can be read at:http://connect.oregonlive.com/user/PortlandAristotle/posts.html

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Posted by at 05:00 | Posted in Economy, President Obama | 40 Comments |Email This Post Email This Post |Print This Post Print This Post
  • Reader5454

    “It (the currency bill) seeks to penalize China for the value of its currency…China has been doing nothing of the sort.”

    Thanks for the laugh, Mr. Tool. I would be less likely to trust you to handle my investments than I would with Bernie Madoff. And since you love China and low wages so much, you should be happy to know that Wal-Mart is always hiring.

    • If you do not know the difference between pegging a currency and competitive devaluation then perhaps we should be laughing at you. Indeed the world laughs at America when we accuse China of undervaluing our currency while we engage in quantitative easing. 

      The things that sell best at Walmart are getting the highest tarrifs: food, clothing, and shoes. The $26 billion the US Customs collect in duties a year is a tax on the poor. When you reduce the purchasing power of the poor, you undermine their real wages in a way that trade does not. Trade is only harmful in the imaginations of people who have never studied economics. Again read Krugman’s “Pop Internationalism”

  • Bob Clark

    Free trade is definitely a good thing overall as it allows us to specialize in the things we do well and like to do.  Lower prices for toys and apparel leaves us with enough money leftover to buy new U.S designed products like ipads and iphones.

    Another strength of the U.S is its higher education system as it attracts foreign students from around the world.  We should maybe concentrate more of our public focus on maintaining education excellence, and less so on single payer healthcare.  The former is a key economic prosperity factor whereas the latter reflects a broken economy.

    The productivity growth we have seen especially over the last two decades has had the one down side that it has lessened the value of general labor.  This is probably the biggest source of the current rise of class warfare, and not so much free trade. 

    This said, free trade may have at least one downside as it regards China.  The U.S is a key cog in the rising economic and military strength of China; and we must be honest with ourselves, and have a worry about feeding the Dragon too generous of helpings.  Maybe the rising wages in China will steer more foreign investment into surrounding nations and less into China going forward.  But the U.S should be building a strong alliance among neighboring asian countries so as to build a countervailing military force to keep China from expanding its sphere of influence.

    Eric is sure an impressive economist.

    • gracious words Bob, but let me hazard an attempt at political analysis. If we were to posit that China’s rise is inevitable, and the United States is in no position to prevent it, then it would not follow that we ought to behave in a way that makes them an enemy. The rise of China resembles the rise of Germany. There was nothing Britain could do to stop it, but Britain did everything they could to guarantee Germany would become their enemy. 

      Worst case scenario China behaves like 19th century America. Taiwan is their Texas, the Spratley Islands are their California, and Tibet and Xingzang are their confederate states. Beyond their own sense of manifest destiny, China will at the most assert a Monroe Doctrine in Southeast Asia the way we did in South America. The costs of our attempts to prevent this far exceed the disadvantages its inevitability presents. 

      Indeed the costs are manifold. Beyond the bad trade policies that a fear of China might inspire, where we harm ourselves more so as to harm them a little, it is clear that the stakeholders in the defense industry who see the gravy train of our global war on terrorism coming to a close, are pinning their hopes that the deterrence of China will prove as lucrative. 

      It is important to remember that our defense spending still exceeds Medicare and Social Security COMBINED. An economist might wonder, with a peaceful border to our north and south, and fish to our east and west, why the United States blows so much money on its military. I think a political analyst, sitting safely in peace and prosperity in Sweden or Switzerland can wonder the same thing. 

      • Rupert in Springfield

        >It is important to remember that our defense spending still exceeds Medicare and Social Security COMBINED.

        Say what?

        Can we please stop with this? Here are the numbers……Yet again.

        Defense spending – Roughly 20% of the budget

        Social Security – Another 20%

        Medicare, Medicaid and CHIP – yep, another 20%

        Source: Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

        http://www.cbpp.org/cms/index.cfm?fa=view&id=1258

        • Those percentages come from including some things I did not and excluding some things I included. It grouped Medicaid and SCHIP together with Medicare; I did not. To make social security 20% of the budget, you have to include its disability programs; I did not. To make American defense spending only twenty percent of the budget, you have limit yourself to the DOD budget and exclude veterans, military foreign aid, and intelligence spending, which I did not.

          I am comfortable however with those numbers as well which show defense spending that is equal to each entitlement program. This is plenty sufficient a premise to highlight the scale of its waste. American military hegemony of the world has continued to be the most wasteful New Deal jobs program. 

          • Rupert in Springfield

            >This is plenty sufficient a premise to highlight the scale of its waste.

            That is completely illogical.

            One thing having the same budget as another, in no way establishes premise that the former constitutes wastefull spending.

            My house could cost the same as my car if I drive a Ferrari. That in no way is plenty sufficient premise to establish my paying for the house was wasteful.

            In 2010 Defense spending, as reported by the CBO was $690B, in that same year Medicare spending was listed as $528B and SS was listed as $700B.

            Source CBO Fiscal Budget and Ecnomic outlook, chart on page 66

            Link http://www.cbo.gov/ftpdocs/108xx/doc10871/01-26-Outlook.pdf

            Im sorry but there simply is no way one can say that defense spending is equal to the cost of Medicare and SS combined. It is simply a made up statistic.

          • Notice that the $690 billion number you just gave me is lower than the first number from the first link. That should tell you something about how much a moving target American spending on national security can be. At least the Center for Budget Priorities, your first link, included war spending. The DOD likes to consider waging its wars an “off budget” item. Another item that gets kept off budget is the costs of veterans services. The CIA, in coordination with JSOC, now fields a third land army (the USMC being the second), if you do not consider it then you would never be counting the price of this fourth little war Obama has just started in the Central African Republic. 

            Ironically, what I did not include was the sum of the costs we incur for our defense posture, only the costs that we appropriate so that we can butt our noses into every ancient blood feud on the globe. I believe we got into this conversation because Bob acknowledged the prosperity that our trade with China and the costs of disrupting that mutually beneficial relationship, but he seemed willing to incur huge costs to try and slow China’s growth as a military power. I exclude them not because they are trivial, but because they are difficult to quantify. The high budgetary costs alone are sufficient reason not to be policing the world. Regarding Social Security, you are including all three of its programs, while I meant what most people colloquially mean by “Social Security” which is its Old-Age Insurance Benefit, not the other two. I did not even mention that at least Social Security has its own separate tax to generate revenue which puts pressure on the program when its expenditures exceed its funding as was the case in the 80s and as 2017 gets ever so closer. The price of American hegemony grows apace at the expense of the hitherto bottomless pit of the general fund. 

            Again, I am willing to stipulate a minimalist account of defense spending compared to a maximum summation of our entitlement spending as a logical premise to lead to the conclusion that we spend way too much on defense. There were two arguments in my original post. One, the fish to our east and west one, is that we would be secure, indeed we would be even more secure than Sweden and Switzerland, if we spent next to nothing on defense. Our geographical defense position is better than theirs. We have a more robust right to bear arms. And it is no accident Al Qaeda targets us and not the Swiss. 

            The logic of my comparison of our military spending to entitlement programs is that many conservatives think that we spend very little on defense. This was more true in the 2000 election than the 2010 election, but this mentality is reemerging now that defense cuts represent half of the budget ceiling deal’s trigger. 

            There is a big problem with your car/house analogy. You picked a car to represent entitlement programs and a house to represent defense spending. Implied in your argument is that we should focus on how much we are spending relative to the consumption goal’s cost. I accept that, but your analogy only works the other way around. If you accept, as I do, that it is a legitimate role of the state to defend its people from attack, then we are spending way too much to accomplish that policy goal. If you accept that it is a legitimate role of the state to guarantee a retirement income and subsidized health care for the last four decades of its citizens’ lives, as I do not, then we are parsimoniously paying too little to accomplish that policy goal. So if the two equal, then we have a problem. Entitlement spending is the house; defense spending is the car. Right now we own three luxury cars: the uniformed military (DOD), the un-uniformed military (JSOC/CIA), and the former military decades upon decades after they have taken off their uniform (VA).

          • Rupert in Springfield

            OK – I am not trying to give you a hard time. I think you are a good write, raise some interesting points and make a good contribution to this blog. I was simply taking issue with this myth that defense spending is larger than it actually is. There is simply no way you can add, subtract, multiply or divide and get Defense at 20% of the budget, to come out greater than SS and Medicare combined when SS alone is 20% of the budget.

            I do agree with you that there is waste in the Defense budget. I do not agree that simply because Defense equals SS, that is a prima facie case that Defense is more wasteful than SS. You simply cant draw that conclusion from that evidence.

            I would also agree with you that Defense is the job of government. Running a sweepstakes, which SS is, where you are awarded other peoples money if you reach a certain age, is not the job of government. 

            Personally I consider SS not only the most wasteful government program of all, I also consider it the most despicable. A government program that gives one generation a windfall profit on their taxes paid, and another generation a loss is simply evil.

          • 3H

            “Running a sweepstakes, which SS is…”

            Oddly,  a sweepstakes that everyone wins (if they live long enough) and that doesn’t give out a grand prize to the exclusion of most everyone else.   Try a different metaphor, this one was pretty weak.

  • HBguy

    Mr. Shierman: “The evidence that free-trade is beneficial while attempts to curtail it are harmful is so clear, there really is not even a real debate anymore amongst economists.”
    I guess that’s if you don’t count  Nobel winning economist Paul Krugman, who by the way was awarded the prize at least partly for his work on international trade economics. (Forget for a minute your distaste for Krugman’s left leaning opinions, this has nothing to do with that)Krugman says…http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/12/06/trade-does-not-equal-jobs/So, I think what the Nobel prize winning international trade economist is saying is, trade agreements can lead to fewer net jobs but a net wash in overall GDP when you loose say, manufacturing jobs, but gain investment banking jobs. He then opines that is a bad result. You can take or leave that opinion, but his economic work I think is unchallenged.Now, I agree Krugman does largely believe in free trade as well. Though he seems to think there’s room for strategic trade protectionism, for instance when Brazil used protectionism to get its aerospace industry off the ground. But his point is, and I don’t think this is disputed, trade agreements don’t necessarily create more demand, or more jobs within a given country, though they can make the world economy more efficient.Bottom line(s). Just because it’s a free trade agreement doesn’t mean it’s in the best interested of the US, or the US workforce. So let’s not go salivating all over every trade agreement that is negotiated. 

    • My friend, that link you sent me is about LIBOR rates, but I am very familiar with Krugman’s position on trade. I use Krugman because if there was anyone who would abandon real economic science to pander to his public, it would be Krugman. Indeed he has changed many of his views since he took that job at the Times, not because the evidence has changed, but because his bread is now buttered in another way. 

      For example. Let’s compare him to another economist that is a solid political progressive, but is also a MACRO economic specialist that has yet to earn the Nobel  Prize and thus abandon math for the fast life as a celebrity pundit: Jefferey Sachs at Columbia. He has penned the most intelligent progressive book that I am now reading: “The Price of Civilization.” Here is a link to an interview he recently had with Charlie Rose: http://www.charlierose.com/view/interview/11925 

      I want everyone reading this to go to that link and watch his interview. It is thirty minutes long. For those of you who do not have that much time, just go to the 12 minute point where Sachs compares Swedish progressive policies with American progressive policies. He then explains why Keynesian spending does not work in no uncertain terms just like I did last week. There is no multiplier. Again Sachs is a progressive but he is a serious economist, responding to the data. 

      Everything Paul Krugman wrote before his Nobel Prize went to his head turning him into some kind of a philosopher king no longer bound by evidence, essentially parallels what I have said on both fiscal and trade policy, just as Alan Blinder’s introductory text book does. I cannot vouch for the post Nobel Krugman, but I can tell you that if there is one guy who can actually be identified as having proved the free-trade position to be true, it is Paul Krugman not David Ricardo. It is no surprise that he earned his Nobel for that very work. Again read his book Pop Internationalism. 

      • HBguy

        Sorry for that bad link. Don’ know how that happened when I copied and pasted.

        I do think it’s important to note that there are two pieces of trade policy that can be identified as important considerations when evaluating trade pacts. Strategic trade protectionism, and the internal impact on job creation and destruction. I simply don’ believe that you can ignore other those factors.

        • I am willing to entertain any empirical evidence that “strategic protectionism” leads to any net gains of any kind for an economy like ours. Geek that I am, I tend to follow the latest material that is published on trade policy. That is actually easy to do now since Krugman has blown every plausible protectionist claim out of the water. I am pretty sure that I have never encountered this term “strategic protectionism” in the peer-reviewed literature. 

          To hold to protectionist policies now is like a Thomist clinging to Aristotelian physics after Newton published the Principia: its just anti-science. 

          Regarding “impact on job creation and destruction” why would we even care since so few jobs are destroyed by trade compared to technology? By that logic wouldn’t we first try and ban email, automation, and lean production processes first? Wouldn’t we want to prevent construction companies from using Bobcats to dig when they would employ more people with shovels? Indeed let’s make them use spoons!

          • HBguy

            Dani Rodrik say’s it well. 
            http://rodrik.typepad.com/dani_rodriks_weblog/2007/04/trade_and_proce.htmlHopefully, that is the correct link this time.

          • HBguy

            Link is broken..maybe because of age. But if you search Dani Rodik, April 26th, 2007. Title, trade and procedural fairness.

          • Dani Rodik said what well? I asked for empirical evidence that “strategic protectionism” leads to any net gains of any kind for an economy like ours. You give me a link to a meditation on meta-ethics?

            He is trying to explain why economists who are focused on facts, data, and methodology see trade differently than the “regular guy” that uses more effective tools like emotion, anecdote, and prejudice against foreigners. Seriously? 

            When Dani claims that a zero sum relationship event occurred whereby Tom is $3 richer and Jerry is $2 poorer, it assumes a fact that is not in evidence. There is evidence that trade protectionism does this. You protect steel workers and thereby make autoworkers poorer. 

            All kinds of crackpots have been nontenured guest lecturers at Harvard’s MPA program. I think Barbara Ehrenreich taught there for a while; what did she write in her blog about trade? They might even give Richard Trumpka a teaching job when he retires from the AFL-CIO – very different world than Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, let alone a peer reviewed journal.

  • Lulz

    Boehner has been held hostage more by his right wing than Obama has by the left.   I think your news reading ability is a little selective.

    • My argument was not that Boehner has less constraints than Obama does. It is that given his constraints he was able to accomplish something huge, something that was thought impossible. Name something that seems impossible that you think Obama can do …… (besides getting reelected)

      If you caught the implication of my last sentence, Obama did not lead when his party controlled both houses of Congress either. So why should we expect him to close deals when they don’t. As divisive as George W. Bush was, even he could work with a divided congress after Jim Jeffords changed control of the Senate. This is important because if you look at the numbers, it is mathematically impossible for the Democrats to hold the Senate next year. 

      • Lulz

        Really?  How is it mathematically impossible?   If they win every single Senate seat, they will hold the Senate, yes?

        • Yes really. When I made reference to what is mathematically impossible, I am referring to polling numbers. People hate polls because they are so accurate. I have found elections to be more predictable than markets. 

          Four years ago, I was saying the same thing about the Republicans keeping the White House. It would be hard to seriously put the words “win every seat” and “possible” in the same sentence. It is also hard to put the words “suffer a net loss of less than four seats” and “possible” in the same sentence as well. It is always a function of who is up for reelection in what states, and in which states are there open seats. If the Democrats were lucky enough to win a 50/50 split under odds worse than winning the lottery, then they would have to contend with Joe Lieberman as the new Jim Jeffords. Worse, if Occupy Wall Street defeats moderate Democrats with left-wing versions of Sharon Angle, Susan O’Donnell, and Sarah Palin, the numbers get worse. 

          • Lulz

            Well, except for Ohio.   

            It is not mathematically impossible.. it is mathematically improbable.  You can not make the statement with an absolute guarantee of certainty. You know as well as I do that polls can change in a heartbeat and that there is no certainty of a future result based upon today’s data.   It’s a probability.  I would think that a writer would want to be more careful in his word choice.  😉

          • There are two ways to be careful in one’s word choice: 1) clarity 2) avoid making predictions. I embrace the first but what value would political analysis be if we followed the second?

            Polling if you will recall, is statistical analysis. The variance of one race is great in the same way that the variance of one stock in the SP500 is also great. The variance of the SP500 itself is substantially less than its components. In any given election year 33 of the Senate’s 100 seats are up for reelection. Taken as a group, net gain and loss is far more stable than a single race. 

            Rather than just root for Sherrod Brown, you might want to consider that there are 23 Democrats up for reelection and only 10 Republicans. If in an anti-incumbent year twice as many Republicans lose as Democrats, they will still take over the Senate. Unfortunately for the Democrats  the polling shows it will be roughly an even churn. On the aggregate, there can be a swing in the Democrats favor, but not to the point of moving from 1/1 to a 2/1 advantage. This is particularly true if you look at what states these races are in. 

            As I said before there is only one powerful variable out there: Occupy Wall Street. Any effect it has on Democratic primaries will hurt them in the general election.  

          • Lulz

            No.. there is actually another powerful variable out there – the Tea Party.  What role they will have in primaries is yet to be seen.  It all hinges on which the independents feel is the more dangerous.  The Tea Party, like Occupy Wall Street, may get what they want in the primaries and still lose in the general if they scare everyone else off.  Bachmann, briefly, seemed to be a Tea Party favorite and she is even freaking out a lot of Republicans.

            You lost clarity with “mathematically impossible” – because, mathematically speaking, it is possible for the Democrats to retain control of the Senate.  It may be politically impossible, and perhaps that is what you meant.  It seems from your explanation that it is.   

            This is also why I encourage everyone to lie to pollsters.  It’s much more fun and entertaining that way.

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