Thursday, February 22, 2018

Venezuela's New Cryptocurrency: Just Another Form of Control Fraud

If a currency can't be converted on demand into the underlying commodity, it's not "backed by oil," it's just another form of control fraud.
The broke and broken country of Venezuela appears to be the first nation-state to issue a cryptocurrency token (the petro) as a means of escaping the financial black hole that's consuming its economy: Maduro Launches Oil-Backed Crypto "For The Welfare Of Venezuela".
For context, here is a chart of the black market (i.e. real-world) value of the Venezuela's fiat currency, the bolivar: a 100,000 bolivar note is worth somewhere around 40 cents USD (US dollar), i.e. near zero. (Venezuela maintains a fantasy-official USD/bolivar exchange rate that has no relation to the actual purchasing-power value of Venezuela's fiat currency.)
The gee-whiz component of the petro is that it is supposedly "backed by oil."In other words, unlike other cryptocurrencies/ tokens, the petro has intrinsic value because it's backed by oil.
But what does backed by oil actually mean?
The only way any currency, fiat or crypto, is "backed" by any real-world commodity is if the currency is convertible into the commodity on demand, that is, the currency can be exchanged for the commodity at a transparent published conversion rate.
If Venezuela's petro cannot be converted directly into deliverable-upon-demand oil contracts, it's not backed by anything. It's important to understand that any currency that claims to be "backed" by gold, oil, rice, bat guano, etc. must be convertible to the underlying commodity at a transparent conversion rate.
If a currency can't be converted on demand into the underlying commodity, it's not "backed by oil," it's just another form of control fraud, which I define as those holding power in centralized institutions enrich themselves at the expense of the citizenry by modifying what's legally permissible.
Conventional fraud is against the law; control fraud is legal because it benefits those who make the rules. If there is no transparent mechanism for converting petros into oil that can be sold and delivered in the global marketplace, then the petro is nothing but a central-state control fraud: those foolish enough to believe the con that the petro is "backed by oil" will end up with a worthless token.
A bit of history will clarify "backed by something real" conversion. In the 1960s, the US dollar was famously "backed by gold," which meant that other nations (via their central banks) could convert $35 USD into an ounce of gold upon demand.
As U.S. trade and federal budget deficits soared in the late 1960s, nations such as France began converting their excess dollars into physical gold. If this conversion had been allowed to continue, foreign entities would have drained all of America's gold as they converted their dollars (exported via trade deficits to other nations) into gold. As a result, the U.S. had no choice but to end the conversion of dollars to gold.
The notion that China or Russia will issue a gold-backed currency attracts considerable attention, but a currency is only "backed by gold" if a foreign financial institution can convert their yuan or rubles into gold upon demand. If there is no transparent, easy mechanism for foreign holders of the currency to convert their currency into gold upon demand, then the currency isn't actually backed by anything: it's simply a form of control fraud.
It doesn't matter if the currency is digital, paper or crypto: if it can't be directly converted into the underlying commodity at a transparent published conversion rate, it's not backed by anything.
Until a foreign financial institution successfully converts its Venezuelan petros into actual barrels of oil, or oil contracts that can be sold immediately on the global market, then the petro isn't backed by anything. Until that conversion process is functioning transparently, the petro is nothing but a giant control fraud perpetrated to benefit the few clinging to power in Venezuela at the expense of the many.


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Wednesday, February 21, 2018

The End of (Artificial) Stability

The central banks'/states' power to maintain a permanent bull market in stocks and bonds is eroding.
There is nothing natural about the stability of the past 9 years. The bullish trends in risk assets are artificial constructs of central bank/state policies. As these policies are reduced or lose their effectiveness, the era of artificial stability is coming to a close.
The 9-year run of Bull-trend stability is ending as a result of a confluence of macro dynamics:
1. Central banks are under pressure to reduce, end or reverse their unprecedented monetary stimulus, and the consequences are unpredictable, given the market's reliance on the certainty that "central banks have our back" is ending.
2. Interest rates / bond yields may well plummet in a global recession, but if we look at a 50-year chart of interest rates, we see a saucer-shaped bottoming in play. Technician Louise Yamada has been discussing the tendency of interest rates/bond yields to trace out a multi-year saucer bottom for over a decade, and we can now discern this.
Even if yields plummet in a recession, as many analysts predict, this doesn't necessarily negate the longer term trend of higher yields and rates.
3. The global economy is overdue for a business-cycle recession, which is characterized by a retrenchment of credit and the default of marginal debt. The "recovery" is the weakest recovery in the past 60 years, and now it's the longest expansion.
4. The mainstream financial media is telling us that everything is going great in the global economy, but this sort of complacent (or even euphoric) "it's all good news" typically marks the top of stocks, just as universal negativity marks secular lows.
5. What happens to markets characterized by uncertainty? Once certainty is replaced by uncertainty, markets become fragile and thus exposed to sudden shifts of sentiment. This destabilization is expressed as volatility, but it's far deeper than volatility as measured by VIX or sentiment indicators.
Market participants have become accustomed to an implicit entitlement: that investors / speculators will earn consistently positive returns on their capital, as central banks and governments have both the power and the mandate to "save" participants from losses and generate phantom wealth ("gains").
This entitlement is ending, as the central banks'/states' power to maintain a permanent bull market in stocks and bonds is eroding, and I suspect few participants have a strategy for a permanently riskier environment going forward.
How much will risk assets have to decline for "wealth" to return to the production of real-world wealth in the real-world economy? Clearly, the answer is "a lot."



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Sunday, February 18, 2018

Russian Meddling: Gagging on the Irony

The irony that is most gagging is that America's power elite is destroying the nation's social order by its concentration of wealth and abuse of power.
The irony of the Deep State's obsessive focus on "Russian meddling" in the precious bodily fluids of our hallowed democracy is so overwhelming that it's gagging. The irony is a noxious confluence of putrid hypocrisy and a comically abject terror at the prospect that the citizenry may be awakening to the terrible reality that America has lost its soul as well as its democracy.
The foul stench of hypocrisy arises from the long and sordid history of America's meddling in the internal politics of virtually every nation on the planet-- a deeply entrenched policy of meddling on such a vast scale that the Deep State minions tasked with projecting a wounded astonishment that some foreign power has the unmitigated gall to attempt to influence our domestic politics must have difficulty restraining their amusement.
America's foreign policy is one of absolute entitlement to influence the domestic affairs and politics of every nation of interest, which to a truly global empire includes every nation on the planet to the degree every nation is a market and/or a potential threat to U.S. interests.
Assassination of elected leaders--no problem. Funding the emergence of new U.S.-directed political parties--just another day at the office. Inciting dissent and discord to destabilize regimes--it's what we do, folks. Funding outright propaganda--one of our enduring specialties. Privatizing public assets to reward our cronies and domestic corporations--nothing's more profitable than a public monopoly transformed into a privately owned monopoly.
(If your nation hasn't been targeted for intervention and campaigns of hard and soft power influence, we apologize for the oversight. We'll get to destabilizing your political order and economy just as soon as the queue of pressing interventions clears a bit.)
One of our most effective means of meddling is economic. First we press the targeted foreign government and civilian power centers--universities, corporations, banks and other institutions--to liberalize the economy and banking system to allow foreign credit and investment in, under the guise of encouraging beneficial development.
Then we flood the economy with cheap, abundant credit, first to buy up natural resources and the most valuable assets, and secondly to fuel a consumption binge that feels like Utopia to credit-starved residents and enterprises: suddenly there's credit to buy almost everything consumers could hope for, and credit to expand production, tourism, etc.
The government is encouraged to borrow to fund large-scale infrastructure projects (which are of course built by foreign firms) and other development projects, with great big slices of the borrowed billions carved off for politicos, functionaries and others in line for bribes, fees and offshore accounts of stolen millions.
This monumental expansion of debt eventually undermines the nation's currency and its economy, as the addictive gush of credit quickly moved beyond sensible, productive projects into speculative ventures with little prospects beyond the initial profits earned by insiders.
As all these marginal projects default, the credit spigot is suddenly shut off, and waves of creditors who thought the good times would last forever go bankrupt.
This destabilization was not an unfortunate side-effect--it was the goal from the start. With the target nation's currency in a freefall and enterprises defaulting left and right, U.S. firms flush with U.S. dollars and banks with nearly unlimited lines of credit in dollars swoop in and offer to ease the pain by scooping up devalued assets for dollars, or extending credit denominated in dollars.
Compared to the scale of these interventions, $100,000 in Facebook adverts is like a pin prick. The indignation and outrage of America's power structure is a tell:how dare you give us a taste of our own medicine--only we're entitled to meddle and intervene as we see fit.
The other source of pungent irony is the failure of America's power structure to maintain the pretense of a functioning democracy and social contract. The nation we inhabit has strayed so far from the nation's founding principles and values that it is unrecognizable. In place of democracy, we have a permanent unelected, impervious-to-the-people Deep State and a pay-to-play system in which political power is auctioned off to the highest bidder.
A mercantile nation that sought to protect sea lanes and trade routes and avoid foreign entanglements has metastasized into an entitled Imperial Project, a Project that enriches domestic corporations and veritable armies of national defense / national security functionaries, think tank and university employees, philanthro-capitalist toadies, media factotums--a nearly endless profusion of beneficiaries of Imperial aspirations.
America's power elite isn't just entitled to intervene and meddle at will globally; it also feels entitled to select America's elected leadership. Elected leaders are anointed in the media, and the citizenry is expected to march to the drumbeat.
That the people failed to follow the directives of their betters was a shock that is still reverberating, hence the power elite's hysterical need to locate a source other than the power elite itself that can be publicly blamed and crucified.
Projection is a well-known psychological coping mechanism. That the loss of the nation's democracy and soul are the direct consequence of the self-serving power elite's own concentration and abuse of power--this is unacceptable. And so the responsibility must be pinned on some external demonic force.
The irony is the American social contract is in tatters due to the self-enriching extremes of the New Gilded Age: an era of unprecedented concentrations of wealth and power in which the citizenry has been reduced to dry tinder awaiting a spark.
Washington and the technocrats are aghast at reports that the opportunistic efforts of Russia-based groups to sow discontent ended up generating 300 million impressions says more about the corruption and abuses of power that have undermined the social order than it does about the diabolical effectiveness of amateurish front groups.
If the U.S. wasn't a nation of haves and have-nots, a nation stripmined by the few at the expense of the many, a nation befuddled by a grotesquely Orwellian media that goes into full propaganda mode if its group-think is questioned, a nation that until recently lauded tech giants whose profits flow exclusively from advertising aimed at users whose engagement is encouraged by just the sort of divisive, emotionally disturbing "news and opinion" that the Russian groups paid for--if the U.S. wasn't a rotten-to-the-core fake-news, fake-recovery, fake-democracy nation, then the modest efforts of the Russian interlopers would have been lost in a sea of legitimacy and authenticity.
The irony that is most gagging is that America's power elite is destroying the nation's social order by its concentration of wealth and abuse of power, yet this power elite claims a handful of social media sites undermined our democracy. How pathetic is that?
The correct question to ask is: what democracy?
Smith's Neofeudalism Principle #1: If the citizenry cannot replace a kleptocratic authoritarian government and/or limit the power of the financial Aristocracy at the ballot box, the nation is a democracy in name only.


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Thursday, February 15, 2018

Our Approaching Winter of Discontent

The tragedy is so few act when the collapse is predictably inevitable, but not yet manifesting in daily life.
That chill you feel in the financial weather presages an unprecedented--and for most people, unexpectedly severe--winter of discontent. Rather than sugarcoat what's coming, let's speak plainly for a change: none of the promises that have been made to you will be kept.
This includes explicit promises to provide income security and healthcare entitlements, etc., and implicit promises that don't need to be stated: a currency that holds its value, high-functioning public infrastructure, etc.
Nearly "free" (to you) healthcare: no.
Generous public pensions: no.
Social Security with an equivalent purchasing power to the checks issued today: no.
As for the implicit promises:
A national currency that holds its value into the future: no.
High-functioning public infrastructure: maybe in a few places, but not something to be taken for granted everywhere.
A working democracy in which common citizens can affect change even if the power structure defends a dysfunctional and corrupt status quo: no.
A higher education system that prepares its graduates for secure jobs in the real-world economy: on average, no.
Cheap, abundant fossil fuels and electricity: during recessionary head-fakes, yes; but as a permanent entitlement: no.
High returns on conventional capital (the kind created and distributed by central banks): no.
A government that can borrow endless trillions of dollars with no impact on interest rates or the real economy: no.
Pay raises that keep up with real-world inflation: no.
Ever-rising corporate profits: no.
You get the idea: the status quo will be unable to keep the myriad promises made to the public, implicitly and explicitly. The reason is not difficult to understand:
Governments jealously protect their right to create currency ("money") out of thin air. This is known as seigniorage. Technically, it's the profit earned by issuing "money" with a market value above the cost of production. For example, if a $100 bill costs 10 cents to produce, the central state's seigniorage is $99.90.
(Central banks are part of the central state. Even though America's central bank, the Federal Reserve, is privately owned, it nonetheless functions as the federal government's central bank.)
To reward cronies and win elections, politcos promise everyone more of everything. Major campaign donors are promised tax breaks; powerful corporations are promised government-mandated cartels or monopolies. Private banks are promised cheap credit. Public unions are promised higher wages and heftier benefits. Voters are promised more infrastructure, more education and social spending, and more entitlements.
And so on.
Funding all these ever-expanding promises with cash would require higher taxes. Any attempt to trim the gravy train promised to one group will arouse that constituency to a frenzy of lobbying and noisy proclamations of disaster if even a penny of their promised gravy train is cut.
As for raising taxes, not only is that politically unpopular, it has an economic impact: every additional dollar taken in taxes is one less dollar available to households and enterprises to spend, save or invest.
If every additional tax dollar was recycled into the economy with the same efficiency as private spending and investment, i.e. the new spending decreased household and enterprise costs proportionately, the effects might be roughly neutral or even beneficial, if the public spending leveraged some new efficiency that was available to everyone.
(If a new tax radically reduced the cost of college tuition for every college student, at least some households would be able to offset the higher taxes with significantly lower expenses. The problem with this swapping of public spending for private spending is politically powerful constituencies typically get the extra public spending, and so the citizenry end up subsidizing political favored groups rather than broadly beneficial programs that actually reduce household/ enterprise expenses.)
So how can politicos fulfill their ever-more costly promises without generating political or economic blow-back? Borrow and/or create the money needed to fund the promises. Actually, these are one mechanism, as Japan has shown: the government borrows a trillion, then the central bank creates a trillion out of thin air and buys the government bond with the new trillion.
If central banks can keep interest rates low, the cost of servicing the new debt is modest--or the interest can be paid with more borrowed money. If the central bank buys the new debt, it's like a perpetual-motion financial machine: the government can borrow unlimited currency, as every new Treasury bond is helpfully purchased by the central bank with new currency created out of thin air.
You see the self-reinforcing feedback loop this creates.The ease of borrowing and the initially modest costs of servicing this additional debt encourages more reliance on borrowing as the politically practical way to meet all the promises while placating powerful constituencies and winning re-election.
The consequences of runaway currency creation/government borrowing are not immediately visible, as the financial system's buffers compensate / subdue the adverse effects.
In other words, the unlimited money-creation/borrowing regime appears stable and sustainable as the risks and consequences are buried in the financial system as a whole.
But the apparent lack of consequences doesn't mean there are no consequences. It means the imbalances and extremes are piling up beneath the surface as the system's buffers thin. New extremes are required to keep the system afloat, but there doesn't seem to be any upper limit on money creation or new government debt.
Until the buffers give way, and all the accumulated consequences manifest in sudden fashion. Here is a chart of the black market ("free") Venezuelan Bolivar to the U.S.dollar (data courtesy of dolartoday.com).
We're assured "that can't happen here," but history tells us that eventually it always "happens here." Ten years ago, few middle-class Venezuelans would have believed their national currency could sink to the point that a 100,000 bolivar bill was worth a mere 41 cents in US dollars.
The chart reveals the dynamic: the currency can be debauched for years with little apparent consequence, and then the buffers suddenly collapse and the currency is essentially worthless.
The collapse of the purchasing power of a currency can be slow or fast. Ten years of 10% annual inflation in an economy of near-zero wage inflation will do the trick, or a sudden crisis of faith creates a bidless market for the currency: nobody wants to part with anything of value for the currency.
The terrible financial hurricane wipes out all the accumulated savings (i.e. accumulated purchasing power) of everyone holding the currency as a "store of value." Only those who transferred their currency into durable stores of value before the collapse (stores of value that the desperate government can't expropriate) conserved their savings/ purchasing power.
Just as structures weaken imperceptibly before they collapse in a heap, the undermining of national currencies by excessive issuance of currency/credit and government debt is also imperceptible. The politicos and functionaries in charge of the debauching of the currency are at first nervous that the market might sniff out the debauchery; but the complacent acceptance of their fraud by the markets and the public gives them the green light to increase the issuance of currency and debt.
Their confidence that they can get away with paying yesterday's promises with money borrowed from the future essentially forever builds into an inevitably fatal hubris.
The tragedy is so few act when the collapse is predictably inevitable, but not yet manifesting in daily life. Screaming but we wuz promised won't nullify the hurricane.


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Tuesday, February 13, 2018

The Ghosts of 1968

The hope of 1968 that public demonstrations can actually change the power structure has been lost.
1968 was a tumultuous year globally and domestically. The Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia--a very mild form of political and cultural liberalization within the Soviet bloc--was brutally crushed by the military forces of the Soviet Union.
The general strikes and student protests of May 1968 brought France to a standstill as demands for social and political change called the entire status quo into question.
On the other side of the planet, the Cultural Revolution was remaking China's still-youthful revolution, to the detriment of the political status quo, the intelligentsia and the common people.
The U.S.was convulsed with assassinations, civil unrest and mass demonstrations against the war in Vietnam and the political status quo (the Democratic Party convention in Chicago).
Ironically, much of the world was benefiting from two decades of rising prosperity and the demise of colonialism. When expectations exceed actual opportunities, discontent is the result. When the power structure is deaf to the discontent, a cycle of repression and disorder feed on each other.
Fifty years on, the ghosts of 1968 are still with us. With the advantage of hindsight, 1968 was the culmination of the belief that it was still possible for the common people to change the political and social order in a positive fashion-- to remake the status quo power structure into something more humane, accessible, just and fair.
The Western status quo bent but did not break. Nothing in the developed-world power structures actually changed. The status quo did break down in China, but the breakdown was not liberating; it was a catastrophe of injustice and destruction without precedent.
A new winter of discontent is chilling the air. Though the current state of affairs seems quite different from that of 1968, the basic context is eerily similar: decades of economic growth have ushered in widespread prosperity, but the benefits and power have gone disproportionately to the few at the top of the wealth-power pyramid.
The status quo power structures are deaf to the discontent of the common people, and respond with blandishments (Universal Basic Income, etc.), propaganda and a spectrum of repression.
In the context of 1968+50=2018, Chris Hedge's incisive essay from 2010 bears re-reading. 2011: A Brave New Dystopia (truthdig):
The two greatest visions of a future dystopia were George Orwell’s '1984' and Aldous Huxley's 'Brave New World.' The debate, between those who watched our descent towards corporate totalitarianism, was who was right. Would we be, as Orwell wrote, dominated by a repressive surveillance and security state that used crude and violent forms of control? Or would we be, as Huxley envisioned, entranced by entertainment and spectacle, captivated by technology and seduced by profligate consumption to embrace our own oppression? It turns out Orwell and Huxley were both right. Huxley saw the first stage of our enslavement. Orwell saw the second.
We have been gradually disempowered by a corporate state that, as Huxley foresaw, seduced and manipulated us through sensual gratification, cheap mass-produced goods, boundless credit, political theater and amusement. While we were entertained, the regulations that once kept predatory corporate power in check were dismantled, the laws that once protected us were rewritten and we were impoverished. The state, crippled by massive deficits, endless war and corporate malfeasance, is sliding toward bankruptcy. We are moving from a society where we are skillfully manipulated by lies and illusions to one where we are overtly controlled.
It's also worth re-reading Mario Savio's extemporaneous speech to the Free Speech Movement's sit-in on December 3, 1964, on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley. Though the speech predates the Prague Spring and the Paris general strike by four years, it embodies the core dynamic of those social uprisings: the system itself is fundamentally flawed, and we are the raw material and product that keep the system operating.
There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part; you can't even passively take part, and you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop. And you've got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you're free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!
The hope of 1968 that public demonstrations can actually change the power structure has been lost. The ghosts of 1968 inform us that there is no reforming the status quo power structure, there are only simulacrum reforms that fulfill the PR requirements of being seen as effecting reform. But people are losing faith in do-nothing policy tweaks; those tossed aside as detritus by the winner-take-most status quo realize the system is failing not just those on the margins but the entire citizenry. Those who look at the stripmined seas, polluted air, depleted soils and aquifers know the system is also failing the planet.
The system needs us as raw material, as "product," as consumers of the output of the machine. That we are consumed by the process--that awareness has faded into the shadows inhabited by the ghosts of 1968.


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Read the first section for free in PDF format.


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