The Plague Of Fantasy Politics

Mr. Jean-Claude TRICHET, President of the Euro...

A Helping Hand

As requested by an ILR reader, I have published further down this post a translation of the Vicenç Navarro article I cited in the May Day International piece.

Funny enough, there is a Vincent Browne piece in today’s Irish Times that touches on some of the same matters. In it he has a go at assorted leftists, and popular bankers, advocating default. His remedy is basically for Ireland to be brought to a point where the state collects a proportion of GDP in taxes comparable to other Eurozone countries. He advocates wealth and income redistribution, but gives no indication as to how that might be achieved. Presumably the mechanism by which it would be achieved would be through the legislature. But he doesn’t say how a right-wing government with a massive majority would decide to do this in advance of sovereign default happening.

He cites the ‘incalculable’ risks of default. But has anyone tried calculating them? Any time I hear people talking about what might happen if there was a default, I never hear any talk about contingency plans in conjunction with the calculation, that is, what ought to happen if the ECB decided to do x, y or z as a result, what and who would need to be protected, how would this best be achieved, what sort of social formations would be needed to cope with the consequences, and so on.

What is most disconcerting, on what passes for debate about default, is that it tends to assume that the existing array of government officials and advisers will act on behalf of the people in this regard, or, at the very least, that these can at least be put in a position where the only actions they are able to take are those commanded by the people. When this assumption is declared to be faulty, the discussion is supplemented by the idea you can bring in some crack team of capitalist true believer popular banking experts who will turn the tables on the ECB.

Don’t get me wrong, I totally oppose the payment of any private banking losses laundered as sovereign debt and fully support the repudiation of illegitimate debt in the process advocated here. But this is something altogether different from the way the discussion of default is framed, day in, day out, in fantastical terms that divorce the whole question of payment from the questions of politics and power, and serve to mask the basic matter of the socio-economic system that has produced the current crisis.

I mean, if the ECB would decide to sink Ireland, doesn’t that say something about what the function of the ECB is? And wouldn’t any decision on default, and the public debate that preceded it, have to take into account this function in explicit terms? Consider this sentence from the Irish Independent: ‘ECB president Jean-Claude Trichet has extended a helping rather than a grabbing hand to this country.’ At what level of chronic idiocy does public discourse operate when someone can get away with writing a sentence like this in a national paper?

Under the conditions being engineered through the EU-IMF-ECB bailout, the power of the owning class relative to the working class is growing, not dwindling. So, returning to what Browne is advocating, where is the political will (I’ve changed my mind on the validity of this term) going to come from, so that a government is going to legislate for redistribution of wealth and income, given that the conditions of the bailout militate against legislative measures of this kind, and given that neither the incumbent government nor the likes of IBEC and the US Chamber of Commerce, nor the ruling class defined more broadly, shows any appetite for doing anything of the sort (and why would it ever?)? What sort of collective action would be needed to bring about this situation? To my mind it would require a radical transformation of Ireland’s society and political economy. I think this would be an excellent and necessary thing, but we need to be realistic about the odds and not entertain the pretence that a conservative government backed by a conservative ruling class has the potential to take radical action. The only suasive power that this argument has is its power to demobilise.

On to Navarro’s article, translated below.

This article analyses the characteristics of the peripheral countries of the Eurozone (Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain, the result of having similar histories. All of these have been governed by profoundly conservative forces during the majority of the 20th Century, and this explains how these countries have very poor states, with highly regressive and scarcely redistributive fiscal policies, and a low social spend. The article points out that these are the causes of their economic stagnation.

What are the characteristics of the peripheral Eurozone countries that today have the greatest difficulty in recovering and exiting from the economic crisis, in which they have been submerged for more than three years? To answer this question one has to understand what it is that these countries, known pejoratively as PIGS, have in common. And the answer is easy to see: they have all suffered totalitarian or authoritarian governments, extreme right or profoundly conservative, across many years. In these countries, the conservative forces were, during a large part of the 20th century, the dominant forces in their political and economic life.

Spain is an example of this. For 40 years it was governed by an ultra-rightwing dictatorship that was characterised by enormous repression (for every political assassination carried out by Mussolini, Franco carried out 10,000) and extremely low social concern. This dictatorship (which was principally of a dominant class against a working class and other components of the popular classes) ended in 1978, after a makeshift transition from a dictatorship to a very incomplete democracy. This transition was made under the auspices of the conservative forces that controlled the main apparatuses of the State. There are many examples of this. In no European country, for example, would it be conceivable that a magistrate could be sanctioned by the Supreme Court for wishing to investigate crimes carried out by the dictatorship that preceded democracy. And in no other country of the EU-15 are State exchequer receipts as low as in Spain; only 34% of GDP, compared to 44% in the EU-15 and 54% in Sweden [Ireland's is below Spain, according to Vincent Browne's article in today's Times, citing Eurostat figures for 2010 - HG]. The Spanish state is poor (part of the State’s rigidities are based on its poverty) and very scarcely redistributive. In reality, it is the least redistributive in the EU-15. And it is among those that treats capital gains and higher incomes very favourably. This also occurs to a greater or lesser extent in the other PIGS.

This poverty of the State has many consequences. One of these is the underdevelopment of their welfare states. When the dictator died, Spain had, by a long way, the lowest public social spending in the Europe that would become the European Union. Much has been done since. But Spain still has the lowest public social spend per inhabitant in the EU-15, which is, Spain is the country where less is spent per capita in health, education, social services, social housing, family assistance, infant schooling, domestic services and the prevention of social exclusion. To define these countries as exuberant in their public spending, as neoliberal theses maintain, is a falsehood, easily shown by looking at the data. However you look at it, Spain and those other PIGS countries are at the tail of Social Europe. The percentage of the adult population that works in public services in the Spanish welfare state (health, education and social services, among others) represents only 9%, the lowest percentage in the EU-15 (whose average is 15%).

But another consequence of the poverty of the State is its indebtedness. If the Spanish state took in what the average in the EU-15 is, it would need to get into a lot less debt. So, if Spain, instead of having been governed for 40 years by an ultraconservative dictatorship and for 30 years by a State in which conservative forces have remained very strong, had been governed by the greater part of this period (1939-2010) by the left, as has been, for example, Sweden- the Spanish state (centrally and regionally) would take in 200 billion euro more than it does now, allowing for a much more developed welfare state (applying the percentages of taxes, public spending and public employment of Sweden to Spain), with which unemployment, which stands at four million, would have disappeared. In reality, the high unemployment rate in Spain is largely due to the low amount of public employment, caused by a meagre public spend, the result of a regressive fiscal policy.

But what is even more important is that these 5 million new jobs would have resolved the enormous problem of the lack of economic recovery as a consequence of insufficient demand. It is this scarce demand (a result of high unemployment) that maintains the Spanish economy stagnant, and makes deficit reduction more difficult. Other countries such as Brazil and Argentina have shown that the best way of reducing the deficit is through economic growth, the result of a public spending stimulus directed to the creation of employment. And this was what Lula advised the Portuguese Prime Minister.

Spain has the resources to generate this employment. The problem is that the State (centrally and regionally) does not collect them. And there is the problem. The enormous domination that conservative forces enjoy in Spain explains why the Spanish state responds to the crisis by cutting public spending, instead of growth from such spending and public employment, financed by a greater fiscal burden on those that benefited most from the neoliberal policies imposed in recent years. This is the reality, rarely discussed and analysed in the country’s economic and financial forums, where the conventional wisdom is generated and reproduced, and promoted in the main news and persuasion media.

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26 Responses to “The Plague Of Fantasy Politics”


  1. 1 Donagh May 4, 2011 at 5:27 pm

    Great post, and thanks for the translation. I think for conservative forces you could say ruling class interest, as this is a conflict within capitalism between employer and worker, particularly, as your previous post mentioned, female workers.

    You’re more generous to Vincent Browne than I was. While he highlighted Ireland has the lowest government revenues, he thinks that the deficit can be reduced by taking more money out of the economy, and I agree that if you are going to take money out of the economy its best to start with those who will feel it considerably less, and who have the money sitting in a bank account or elsewhere. So I’m all for taxing the rich. But Browne does not get even close to Navarro’s point, following Lula that the only way to reduce the deficit is to invest in growth, in jobs, increasing employment and developing infrastructure. The governments strategy whether through cuts in public services and pay or tax increases, has reduced government revenue further than it needed to be.

    Browne ultimately agrees with their strategy, and never even mentions the often repeated alternatives (by the left anyway).

    Its the same with how we can’t default because we won’t survive. He presumes that the ECB/EU/IMF/Labour/FG/FF strategy will work, as in, it will be made to work. Who really believes that?

    One final point. While reading Navarro’s article I wondered if the comparisons with Ireland, Portugal and Spain are as close as he suggests. For one, Spain and Portugal both had stimulus’ no matter how short lived. It was beginning to make a difference. We have not of course. Also Spain has a universal health system. We don’t.

    I remember reading Paul Mason’s book Meltdown, and on the section on Ireland getting rather annoyed. On the fact that there weren’t riots on Irish streets he said: “The European social dividend is keeping things in place, for now”. At the time I took for this that he was buyying the line that our spending on social services and welfare skyrocketed during the so called “Celtic Tiger”, and thought that he forgot to mention the low base that they came from – the severe cutting away that happened in the 80s. But then I realised that he had a point.

    There is a certain amount of social protection there, and this is holding things in place for now. It’s going to be chipped away in the years to come, and everyone is fearful of that. Yes, the austerity budgets have made life harder for lots of people, but equally it hasn’t happened to the extent that many of those still working would notice (not ignoring the hardship of those many thousands who are now going into long-term unemployment). Perhaps I’m wrong, but those are the thoughts that occured as I read the post.

    • 2 Hugh Green May 4, 2011 at 7:29 pm

      I think I was far too generous, in so far as I didn’t bother to mention the fact that he’s hawking the idea you can cut your deficit by cutting spending. Yes, what we have in this article by Browne is an endorsement of -or acquiescence in, if we’re being generous- the procrustean parameters of the whole thing. I can’t say I’m too surprised.

      As for the similarities/differences. I think there are sufficient similarities to bracket together the four countries mentioned as historically distinct from the rest of the Eurozone, but as you say, there are still substantial differences between them when you look into it further. So in Spain you have an explicit left/right divide, with clearly identifiable parties in that regard, whereas the quasi-official line in Ireland is that there is no right wing, but mere ‘pragmatism’. And then in Spain you have a different, more extensive leftist tradition, but also a history of exterminationist repression of that tradition, as opposed to in Ireland where there was no comparable repression (which is not to say there wasn’t any, but Paul Preston’s new book will be titled The Spanish Holocaust for a reason), even though the Irish Catholic Church, like its counterpart in Spain, was a formidable bulwark against communism.

      • 3 Donagh May 5, 2011 at 11:37 am

        Well, we have all been a too generous to Vincent Browne at one point or another, but I made the point I suppose, not because you’d neglected it, but more to emphasis that when people complain about the right-wing dominance of the media with the proviso ‘apart from Vincent Browne’ they should really be including him as part of that establishment consensus. This article just adds to the line he has taken on his program when ‘haranguing’ leftwing panelists with ‘you have offered no reasonable alternative that I find satisfactory’. So, when it comes to nominal lefties in the media I’ll stick with Gene Kerrigan, who also, I should add, doesn’t have two newspaper columns, a successful TV program, a popular current affairs website, and a backlog of failed though respected magazines to flog. But referring to the procrustean parameters of the thing is very good shorthand I have to say.

        On the similarities /differences, they are definitely there, but are so nebulous that they can’t be used to provide a direct comparison to explain why people are not resisting. Reading Anarchism and the City a while back was very interesting after reading a section of Conor’s book on Irish property just after the formation of the Irish independent state.

        The book describes how Barcelona expanded quite quickly at the beginning of the 20th century, as workers moved from the country looking for work. Immediately there was a housing crisis, and the response of the Barcelona bourgeoisie was not to put in place a comprehensive reform of housing and a substantial building program to help people out of the tenements and the terrible conditions. They didn’t at first, preferring to privatize the rebuilding and doing it piecemeal. A similar situation happened in Ireland, of course, with the Cumann na nGaedheal government and William Thomas Cosgrave’s call in 1925 to ‘resuscitate the speculative builder’ (http://dublinopinion.com/2010/08/07/we-wish-to-resuscitate-the-speculative-builder/).

        The differences though are interesting. The social problem that occurred in Barcelona came out of the economic movement of labour from the country where employment dropped to the city. This movement is well know through the development of capitalism, of course, and perhaps best known with the closing of the commons in Britain, and is elsewhere described in Mike Davis’s Planet of Slums, where this movement is part of the creation of surplus labour. In Ireland however, this movement, in terms of the substantial movement, didn’t happen within the country, but through emigration. The initial problems in Barcelona led, as we known to serious political agitation, anarchist formations and so on.

        In addition, this political build up of resistance occurred at a time when Fascism was getting into its stride in Spain (and I realize there’s a mountain of other finer points that I’m ignoring here), in Ireland rather than going a similar route the Irish people elected a government who promised to put in place a state funding housing program that the previous government had failed to implement. Now, we know that the Fianna Fail government was as corporatist as Cumann na nGaedheal, but in terms of what was happening in Europe, and the running battles between the blueshirts and the brownshirts not withstanding, Ireland didn’t opt for fascism. Fianna Fail released the pressure that such a turn would have built up with in the country. After 9 years of Cumann na nGaedheal, they wanted something different.

        But again, there are similarities that can be drawn with Portugal. In the early 1960s Salazar started a process of opening up the Portuguese economy to outside investment. It is hardly a coincidence that a dictator and the governing Irish elite had the same cracking idea at the same time. We know of course about the flood of money that came into Europe through the Marshall Aid Fund. In Ireland’s case it was given hardly any of this, because we were barely affected by the war. What were provided though were loans, but these loans had to be repaid in dollars. Ireland’s reserves were in Pounds, so US investment was needed to make the repayments. After the Marshall Aid however, and indeed facilitated by it (the plan was to open Europe to the American market) there was a flood of investment cash from the US, which Salazar wanted to take advantage of.

        What was different to Ireland, again, was the relationship that Portugal and Spain had with their respective neighbours. There was very little economic co-operation between the two countries in the 60s. This only came later (as illustrated now by the level of exposure that Spanish banks have to Portuguese debt). Ireland, however, was thoroughly intertwined with the British economy, which brings us back to the movement of labour, as most of those who emigrated to look for work went to Britain to provide its surplus labour while rebuilding the country after the war.

        The exterminationist repression in Spain is necessary because those who are resisting aren’t going anyway. Thanks for reminding me about Peter Preston again. I have to pick up his biography of Franco. It’s embarrassing, but I only came across him after reading his forward to Anarchism and the City.

  2. 4 Alan Rouge May 4, 2011 at 9:55 pm

    Browne also neglect s to mention that increasing revenue as % of GDP would entai increasing taxes on businesses, incraesing the corpo tax.

    Maybe he just wanted to have a few cheap digs at the lefists mentioned. He’s far too soft on the righties, some of which want taxes cut – Ross wants corpo tax down to below 10% & the right wing lecturers want flat taxes.

  3. 5 make do and mend May 5, 2011 at 6:27 pm

    Just catching up on several of your posts. The one mentioning mum/mam brought a smile to my face. As much as ‘advice’ from this quarter can be, shall we say, irksome occasionally, they’re often right. A bit of a breather to get some perspective, especially as the dung is hitting the fan for labour in Ireland, keeps one saner and humour alive.

    About today’s post and the Spanish writer cited, I have grave concerns about the emphasis on growth – it almost seems to advocate economic growth for growth’s sake. Surely this is one of the core principles of capitalism, and as other commentators have pointed out growth in itself, via GDP/GNP, is only relative to distributions of wealth generated.

    Being a watermelon, I often rue the near total lack of other responses socialist thinking can offer – sustainability, localisation, diversity, stability through redundancy, co-operation. Many eschew these as reformist but if the underlying message (Capitalism causes disparity, unemployement, and loss of working dignity) then those actively pursuant to these other modes of self expressed production can only strengthen a socialist response to the structural changes to the socio-economy we’d all like to see.

    I’m not against economic growth, we just need to redefine it on more than one level. A small group creating products and services in one locality create a greater value of growth than a multinational who dictates whose worthy to receive wealth deemed by management and a board of directors.

    End of pontification. Best.

    • 6 Hugh Green May 6, 2011 at 9:23 am

      Thanks for the comments. I agree 100% with what you’re saying about growth as % increases in GDP/GNP. Personally, I find David Harvey’s advocacy of a target of 0% growth rather persuasive. I think the point here, however, isn’t so much that growth is the panacea for Ireland’s (or Spain’s) problems, but that even within the terms narrowly defined by the orthodox stance that the main problem is to reduce the budget deficit, ruling interests push policy, particularly in these countries, towards cutting wages and public spending, even though this will likely widen the deficit, and those who will bear the costs are those who can least afford it. But you’re right – in practice, when you’re talking about these things, you end up foreclosing on other possibilities and perhaps identifying too closely with the vantage point of the state official.

    • 7 alanrouge May 6, 2011 at 3:18 pm

      @I agree that some on the left could do well to link climate changes to their economic arguments. I haven’t really heard much about this from the anti-capitalist sector of our political spectrum though I stand to be corrected.

      It seems an obvious link to make – capitalism is based on infinite growth on a finite planet which is thus unsustainable. Even that great capitalist apologist Dave McWilliams reduced the argument in an RTE tv show down to: to produce more burgers you need to consume more resources.

      Production for the argument of capital is unsustainable. Production for use models should be looked at. It could be that some on the left are drawn into too many economic arguments and winning these with rhetoric will not suffice.

  4. 8 alanrouge May 6, 2011 at 3:29 pm

    The SWP published a newsletter in response to Browne’s article. Taking the argument from one about taxation levels to one about “social revolt against the rule of capital”.

    If he reads it I can picture Vincent guffawing at the suggestion.

    Their argument, or rather Kieran Allen’s argument, appears sound – that there’s an investment strike on. They haven’t addressed the question of whether it is because the investors want wages cut further and want to be given more tax cuts and subsidies or if it is because of fears of default over the bailout although I’d imagine they believe it is the former.

  5. 9 make do and mend May 7, 2011 at 8:53 am

    To Hugh, thx for the response and the indulgence of my genshing, but if I might be indulged a bit further.

    To alanrouge, watermelon (green on the outside, red inside) politics is getting some attention, but very little or none in Ireland. Recognising Malthusian limitations isn’t exactly main stream Marxist thought, and an arguement put forward by more orthodox Marxists is that there isn’t a problem in creating wealth (look around, there’s plenty of wealth about) but mainly in its allocation. (Capitalist ecology, on the other hand, is alive and well.)

    A realworld example. We’ve all probably been sat in a big parking lot at a supermarket or mall. We see new buildings, acres of tarmac, 100’s of shiny autos, trollies loaded with groceries, people over-loaded with bags of commodities, and so on. We see the fruits of capitalist free markets.

    There is another view. We’re sitting on fuel based tarmac that requried fuel to build, deliver and maintain. The polluted run-offs from the tarmac (oil, accumulated exhaust fumes, rubbish) run into underground pipes, again requiring fuel to build and maintain, accumulating somewhere. (Waste never goes away, it just often gets hidden. Even if it is ‘recylced’, the recycling infrastructure sucks up huge amounts of fossil fuel to build, operate and maintain.) Without increased energy usage, growth as defined by capitalist, cannot exist.

    I also see a just-in-time commodity market (very manipulated). Most produce is grown in centralised locations on mono-crop bases. This requires fossil fuel derived fertiliser inputs, huge infrasture and machinery and long transportation chains. This a fragile system, with little or no redundant back-up sources,that delivers vegitables, for example, that are 30% less nutritious than they were in c. 1980 according to the USDA. (Cides are another issue.)

    The amount of commodities that we want rather than what we need is staggering as is the fuel consumption accompanying such activity. In the US you’ll find huge storage facilities in any urban or surburban areas for the all the commodities people buy but can’t use. What’s the point?

    It’s easy to write sustainability, and I’m not against rational growth, nor do I think we can return to some idyllic simpler time. We live now and move into the future. I just think there is opportunity, especially given the labour situation which may become the norm for many or most, for socialism to experiment a little bit. Can we take the fragility of capitalist systems and use them for the advantage of the working class.

    Capitalists seem to think they can sell a bit of this message. While they may be delivering a proportion of the working class in Ireland into a never ending cycle of poverty, they also see an opportunity for some people to start small businesses that plug into the fuel-centric capitalist model.

    Or can we turn the lack of resources that many of us will be living under into opportunities to co-operate in ventures that reveal to us the value of our labour, our communities and the earth where all other resouces come from to create wealth? Child minding, wage based transportation, repair services, localised food, localised and durable furniture, domestic house craft, co-op banking/insurance are all areas that we could base socialist models upon. Autonomy and labour diginity would accrue from a socialist approach even at these mostly domestic levels. (But easier said than done, especially as early models will almost certainly fail or need continual reworking.)

    And I don’t hug trees. I do like trees, especially if they have apples I can scrump.

  6. 10 Tirnanog33 May 13, 2011 at 6:10 am

    I have lived in an outpost of Spain (Canary Islands) for ten years and I have witnessed the wholesale evasion of taxes firsthand.
    It is standard practice when buying or selling property throughout Spain to place about seventy percent, or less, of the selling price of a property, on the deeds and the rest is pain in cash.
    Thus most of the capital gains tax is frequently evaded on the one hand-and the stamp duty on the other.
    I have no doubt-like Greece- there are numerous other scams to avoid government taxation.
    That said our own Fianna Failers legitimized in law a similar system of wholesale tax avoidance for their developer friends-without the “black money” element.

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