August 18th, 2011
04:20 PM ET

How to fix the U.S. economy

On Sunday, I talked about about Wall Street's wild week with two of the world's top economists. We discussed what the market volatility means or doesn't mean, and what may lay behind it and what lies ahead of us.

Paul Krugman won the 2008 Nobel Prize in Economics, and he is a columnist for The New York Times. Kenneth Rogoff is a former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund, now a professor of economics at Harvard University. Here's a lightly edited transcript of our conversation:

Fareed Zakaria: Paul, let me start with you. The one thing we saw over the week was markets up, markets down, but the one trend that seemed persistent was there is a great demand for U.S. treasuries despite the fact that the S&P downgraded it.

You've been talking a lot about this. Explain in your view what does it mean that in moments like this U.S. treasuries are still in demand and what that does is push interest rates even lower than they are.

Paul Krugman: Well, what it tells you is that the investors, the market, are not at all afraid of what the policy elite or people like Standard & Poor's are telling them they should be afraid of.

You know, we've got all of Washington, all of Brussels, all of Frankfurt saying debt, deficits, this is the big problem. And what we actually have in reality is markets are terrified of prolonged stagnation, maybe another recession. They still see U.S. government debt as the safest thing out there, and are saying, if this was a reaction of the S&P downgrade, it was the market's saying, "We're afraid that that downgrade is going to lead to even more contractionary policy, more austerity, pushing us deeper into the hole."

So it's a reality test, right? So we just had a wake-up call that said, "Hey, you guys have been worrying about the entirely wrong things. The really scary thing here is the prospect of what amounts toa somewhat reduced version of the Great Depression in  the Western world."

Fareed Zakaria: Ken Rogoff, worrying about the wrong thing?

Ken Rogoff: Well, I think the downgrade was well justified. It's a very volatile world. And the reason there's still a demand for treasuries is they've been downgraded a little bit to AA plus. That looks pretty good compared to a lot of the other options right now.

It's a very, very difficult time for investors. There is a financial panic going on at some level. Some of it's adjusting to a lower growth expectations, maybe a third of what we're seeing. Two-thirds of it is the idea no one's home – not in Europe, not in the United States. There's no leadership. And I really think that's what's driving the panic.

Fareed Zakaria: But you wrote in an article of yours that you think that this is part of actually a broader phenomenon which is that people are realizing this is not a classic recession, this is not a classic cyclical downturn. This is what you call a "Great Contraction". Explain what you mean by that.

Ken Rogoff: Well, recessions we have periodically since World War II, but we haven't really had a financial crisis as we're having now. And Carmen Reinhart and I think of this as a great contraction, the second one, the first being the Great Depression, where it's not just unemployment, it's not just output, but it's also credit, housing and a lot of other things which are contracting. These things last much longer because of the debt overhang that we started with. After a typical recession, you come galloping out. Six months after it ended, you're back to where you started. Another six or 12 months, you're back to trend.

If you look at a contraction, one of these post-financial crisis events, it can take up to four or five years just to get back to where you started. So people are talking about a double dip, a second recession. We never left the first one.

Fareed Zakaria: So, Paul Krugman, what the implication of what Ken Rogoff is saying is spending large amounts of money on stimulus programs is not going to be the answer because, until the debt overhang works its way off, you're not going to get back to trend growth. So, in that circumstance, you'll be wasting the money. Is that – is –

Paul Krugman: No, that's not at all what it implies. I think my analytical framework, the way I think about this, is not very different from Ken's. At least I certainly believed from day one of this slump that it was going to be something very different from one of your standard V-shaped, down and up recessions, that it was going to last a long time.

One of the things we can do, at least a partial answer, is in fact to have institutions that are able to issue debt - namely the government - do so and sustain spending and, among other things, by maintaining employment, by maintaining income, you make it easier for the private sector to work down that overhang of debt.

Fareed Zakaria: Ken, are you in favor of a – a second or a significant additional stimulus in the way that I think Paul Krugman is?

Ken Rogoff: No. I think that's where we part ways on this. I think that creates a debt overhang in the terms of future taxes that is not a magic bullet because it's not a typical recession. I do think, if we used our credit to help facilitate one of these plans to bring down the mortgage debt in this targeted way, and it could involve a significant amount - that I would definitely consider. I mean, that's how I would do it.

Now, obviously, things go from bad to worse, then you start taking out more and more things from the toolkit, but I would start with targeting the mortgages, then higher inflation, try to do some structural reforms and, of course, if things are still going badly, I'm open to more ideas.

Paul Krugman: I would say things have already gone from bad to worse. I mean, this is a terrible, terrible situation out there. You know, we talk about it, we look at GDP, whatever. We have nine percent unemployment and, more to the point, we have long-term unemployment at levels not seen since the Great Depression. Just an incredibly large number of people trapped in basically permanent unemployment.

This is something that desperately needs addressing. And I would be saying we should not be trying one tool after another from the toolkit a little bit at a time. At this point, we really want to be throwing everything we can get mobilized at it.

I don't think fiscal stimulus is – is a magic bullet. I'm not sure that inflation is a magic bullet in the sense that it's kind of hard to get, unless you're doing a bunch of other things. So we should be trying all of these things.

How did the Great Depression end?  It ended, actually, of course, with World War II, which was a massive fiscal expansion, but also involved a substantial amount of inflation, which eroded the debt. What we need - hopefully we don't need a world war to get there - but we need this kind of all-out effort which we're not going to get.

Fareed Zakaria: You say World War II got us out of the Depression. This was a massive stimulus, massive fiscal expansion. But aren't we in a different world?

We are, right now, the United States with a budget deficit 10 percent of GDP, which is the second highest in the industrial world. In two our debt-to-GDP ratio goes to 100 percent. That strikes me as a situation, which presumably has some upper limit. You can't just keep spending money and incur these larger and larger debt loads.

Paul Krugman: I think those numbers are a bit high, about the debt levels a couple years out. It takes longer than that.

But the main thing to say is, look, think about the costs versus benefits right now. Basically, the U.S. government can borrow money and repay in constant dollars less than it borrowed. Are we really saying that there are no projects that the federal government can undertake that have an even slightly positive rate of return? Especially when you bear in mind that many of the workers and resources that you employ on those projects would be otherwise be unemployed.

The world wants to buy U.S. bonds. Let's supply some more, and let's use those bonds to do something useful which might, among other things, help to get us out of this terrible, terrible slump.

Ken Rogoff: Well, I think you have to be careful about assuming that these low interest rates are going to last indefinitely. They were very low for subprime mortgage borrowers a few years ago. Interest rates can turn like the weather.

But I also question how much just untargeted stimulus would really work. Infrastructure spending, if well spent, that's great. I'm all for that. I'd borrow for that, assuming we're not paying Boston Big Dig kind of prices for the infrastructure.

Fareed Zakaria: But, even if you were, wouldn't John Maynard Keynes say that if you could employ people to dig a ditch and then fill it up again, that's fine. They're being productively employed, they pay taxes, so maybe the Boston's Big Dig was just fine after all?

Paul Krugman: Think about World War II, right? That was actually negative for social product spending, and yet it brought us out. I mean, partly because you want to put these things together, if we say, "Look, we could use some inflation." Ken and I are both saying that, which is of course anathema to a lot of people in Washington, but is in fact what the basic logic says.

It's very hard to get inflation in a depressed economy. But if you have a program of government spending plus an expansionary policy by the Fed, you could get that. So if you think about using all of these things together, you could accomplish a great deal.

If we discovered that space aliens were planning to attack and we needed a massive buildup to counter the space alien threat - and really inflation and budget deficits took secondary place to that - this slump would be over in 18 months. And then if we discovered, oops, we made a mistake there aren't actually any space aliens.

Ken Rogoff: So we need Orson Wells is what you're saying?

Paul Krugman: There was a Twilight Zone episode like this, which scientists fake an alien threat in order to achieve world peace. Well, this time we need it in order to get some fiscal stimulus.

Fareed Zakaria: But Ken wouldn't agree with that, right? The space aliens wouldn't work –

Ken Rogoff:  I think it's not so clear that Keynes was right. I mean, there have been decades and decades of debate about whether digging ditches is such a good idea.

And my read of the debate is when the government does really useful things and spends the money in useful ways, it's a good idea. But when it just dig ditches and fills them in, it's not productive and leaves you with debt.

I don't think that's such a no-brainer. There are people going around saying, "Oh, Keynes was right. Everything Keynes said was right." I think this is a different animal, with this debt overhang that you need to think about from the standard Keynesian framework.

Paul Krugman: I guess I just don't agree. I mean, the debt overhang was an issue in the '30s, too - private sector debt overhang. We came into this with higher public debt than I would have liked, right? We're really, in some ways, paying the cost to the Bush tax cuts and the Bush unfunded wars, which leave us with a higher starting point of debt.

But the thing that drives me crazy about this debate, if I can say, is that we have these hypothetical risks. All those hypothetical things are leaving us doing nothing about the actual thing that's happening, which is mass unemployment, mass waste of human resources, mass waste of physical resources.

This is what's happening. We are hemorrhaging economic possibilities and also destroying a lot of lives by letting this thing drift on. And we're inventing these phantom threats (sometimes ghosts are real, I guess) to keep us from acting.

Fareed Zakaria: Do you think that the lesson from history, Ken, in terms of these kind of great contractions - we have not had something like this since the 1930s, but there have been other examples - tells you that until you get these debt levels down, no matter what the government does, it's not going to get you back to robust growth?

Ken Rogoff: I do, because what happens as you're growing slowly, the debt problems start blowing up on you. That's happening very dramatically in Europe. They had a philosophy and approach of things are going to get much better - 'if we can just hang on, we're going to grow really fast, the debt problems will go away.'

Well, guess what? They're not growing fast enough. The debt problems are imploding. That's slowing growth, and it's a self- feeding cycle.

Paul Krugman: I guess I'm a little puzzled here because, again, the thing that's holding us back right now in the United States - although there are those peripheral European countries that are having a very different kind of problem, partly because they don't have their own currencies - but, in the United States, what's holding us back is private sector debt. And, yes, we're not going to have a self sustaining recovery unless that private sector debt could be brought down.

Fareed Zakaria: Just to be clear, Paul, what you mean by that is individuals have a lot of debt on their balance sheets?

Paul Krugman: Yes, that's what's holding us back, and we do need to bring that down - at least bring it down relative to incomes. So what you need to do is you need to have policies to make incomes grow.

That can include government spending, which is going to add to public debt, but it's going to reduce the burden of private debt. It can include inflationary policies, and it can include deliberate forgiveness.

The idea that this has all faded, that we cannot do anything to grow because we have to wait for some natural process to bring that debt down, that doesn't follow from the analysis. There is a huge overhang of debt, which is, at least as I see it, exactly the reason why we need very activist government policies.

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Topics: Economy • GPS Show

soundoff (46 Responses)
  1. j. von hettlingen

    Krugman: "what's holding us back is private sector debt." Who was responsable for this misery? The banks, persuaded people to borrow by offering cheap credits and loans. Shops lured people to spend and buy!

    August 18, 2011 at 6:02 pm | Reply
    • Howard

      As soon as Obama is out of office, the economy will sky rocket, and America will once again become strong, successful, and respected.

      August 19, 2011 at 1:43 pm | Reply
      • Onesmallvoice

        I'm afraid that you're mistaken, Howard. Even if some Republican manages to beat Obama, he or she will only follow the same right-wing policies that brought us to this disaster in the first place. They all, with the exception of Ron Paul of course, want to increase the needless military spending, continue to fight these useless wars and let the wealthy keep their tax exemptions. Either way, this country's future doesn't appear very bright!!!

        August 19, 2011 at 7:41 pm |
  2. Onesmallvoice

    Until the day comes when the U.S. disengages from all these useless and unnecessary wars overseas, make very deep cuts in the unnecessary and excessive military spending and quit giving needless tax breaks to the rich, this country will never pull itself out of this depression that we're now in! But try telling that to the idiots in Washington who made only too many backroom deals with the MIC(military-industrial-complex)!!!

    August 18, 2011 at 8:31 pm | Reply
  3. Michael Zeldich

    Receipt to put our civilization out of the death path is simple, we have to stop provide compensation for a labor. Instead there should be compensation for a product, or crevice.
    It is nothing new, actually in the agriculture that is common practice. Now it is necessarily to do the same in the society as whole. The result is very predictable. All people will have to pay for everything what they heed and sale the product which they are able to produce.
    For implementation of that recommendation one has to design a computer models on micro and macro levels and develop the procedures of conversion to the new roles of game.
    Finally we will have the society without contradictions between labor and capital, increasing demand for goods and services and return jobs back to that country.
    I am agreeing for 1% of compensation for my advice from GDP grows after implementation of that new type of economic.

    August 19, 2011 at 7:17 am | Reply
    • Cyrus

      I should inform the Nobel Committee about this "genius" plan. I am overwhelmed by the theory.

      August 19, 2011 at 12:36 pm | Reply
    • Justinstl

      I think we could pay off the debt if we would tax any and everyone who works in the professional entertainment industry (pro atheletes and movie and tv stars, and music stars) 50% of their outrageous income. I also think that we should tax any person who was not born here(foreign born American citizens) living in the US an amount of 35% of their income just for being here. This will pay the debt off in a few years!

      August 26, 2011 at 1:49 pm | Reply
  4. joelmunoz34

    Refinancing means taking out a new mortgage with a lower interest rate to pay off your existing mortgage, search online for "123 Refinance" I got 2.831% rate on refinance! you should know your rate before you find a company. Learn the secrets and tips about refinance

    August 19, 2011 at 7:42 am | Reply
  5. unemploymentsux

    About 15 Million Americans are currently unemployed and they are sharing their experiences. Go to to read their stories.

    August 19, 2011 at 11:13 am | Reply
  6. Campaign Headquarters

    He's always right –

    August 19, 2011 at 1:05 pm | Reply
  7. jrt1098

    note to Krugman, CNN, MSNBC: You are directly responsible for electing this band of dweebs, and therefore directly responsible for this ECONOMIC DISASTER.......while ALL of your ratings are going down FOX news is setting records......shouldnt that tell you something !

    August 19, 2011 at 2:06 pm | Reply
  8. David

    Paul Krugman is wrong so often that I am no longer going to say something is wrong again. I am just going to call it "Krugman".

    August 19, 2011 at 2:11 pm | Reply
    • Barron

      David, thank you. I will do the same. Wrong=Krugman. It is just commons sense, or animal spirits, or fancy theorist, or aliens.....

      August 24, 2011 at 10:18 am | Reply
  9. sam900

    There were millions of people died in WWII, causing labour shortage. Why nobody mentioned it.

    August 19, 2011 at 3:19 pm | Reply
    • Lynn P.

      I read today in the paper that 300,000 U.S. military died in WW2, which is a far cry from "millions."

      August 20, 2011 at 6:29 pm | Reply
      • Pravin

        yes,only 30000 americans died.but millions were involved in the destructive war industry,making tanks and planes designed only to destroy -war destroys wealth.there was rationing and shortages everywhere because people werent employed in making things they wanted like shoes or clothes or all got diverted towards can have 100% employment if you hire all unemployed into the army.but does it do society any good if more people were out there killing other people?
        i mean how did this "war stimulus" work out for afghanistan or iraq eh?.krugman is wrong about the war ending the depression.bib higgs has destroyed this silly argument long back.please read up

        August 24, 2011 at 1:51 am |
  10. Gary

    I like your theory David. Krugman is a Krugman and Obama has made one Krugman after another. It blows my mind that Krugman is in favor of another massive stimulus to get the economy rolling. While President Bush is responsible for record government spending during his 2 terms, President Obama has taken it to an astronomical level. The debt debacle is no doubt the fault of President Obama. While not having a clue or a sound plan for the debt debacle, he has made another massive Krugman in his presidency.

    I firmly believe President Obama is a socialist, hates american values, believes where other socialists have failed to create a socialist utopia, he can master what others have not. The problem is, while Obama is somewhat intelligent, by that I mean he is not a total idiot, he has no ideas, just idealogy, no direction, just directions passed on to him by his socialist aquaitances. I truly do not have a problem with helping out people that can't do for themselves, the elderly, the afflicted, the people due to diminished health or mental capacities can't provide for themselves. But, as I have seen, due to the job in which I am employed, the welfare system and other such programs are overrun with criminals, and people overstating there plight gaming the system. The number of these people far outweigh the actual number of people that need and deserve help from society.

    It kills me the label Tea Party members and the slander that is perpetuated against this righteous group. Like the welfare system, there is bad seeds amongst the Tea Party members. But, in this group, the good outnumber the bad. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see, although evidently a nobel prize winner cannot, that reducing spending, the size of the government, reform of welfare, medicaid and medicare, the tax system, to weed out the undesireables is greatly needed. If the government were a business, it would have went bankrupt under the Obama administration!

    August 19, 2011 at 6:57 pm | Reply
  11. Andrew

    I know it is the most minor quibble and has nothing to do with economic policy, but to give voice to the sci-fi nerd hivemind, the suggested faux-alien invasion gambit proposed by Krugman was from an episode of The Outer Limits, not The Twilight Zone.

    It was called The Architects of Fear, and was later the inspiration for Alan Moore's iconic "Watchmen" graphic novel, wherein a group of scientists stage an alien invasion in conspiracy to prevent nuclear war by convincing the powers of the world that there was a greater existential threat than their own nuclear weaponry.

    August 20, 2011 at 10:47 am | Reply
  12. foreigner

    Well Paul, we've got your crisis alright, that's going to wipe out our culture and probably species as well in a few decades: it's called the climate change. Nothing but roll your sleeves folks!

    August 21, 2011 at 9:52 am | Reply
  13. Robert Guy Danon

    Central bank zero inflation policies created an environment of unsustainable debt overhang as households, companies, governments insatiably borrowed on the assumption that growth will be forever uninterrupted and the Economic cycle was dead.

    Well guess what like in all excesses this financial excess and debt-load supported ever increasing questionable collateral. The result a financial crisis of immense proportions. It is evident in this light that the way to tackle this is to either increase the values of collateral assets which support this debt and or reduce the level of debt by writing it down. The first you solve by increasing inflationary expectations. For example world central banks abandon zero inflation policies so that investment decisions are intentionally taken with asset prices increases as major determinant factors, the second you provide government incentives for banks to write down household debt producing demand enhancing wealth effect. Equally if increased deficit spending is targeted at infrastructure projects which are investment positive you are able to provide and or enhance a self financed utility, create jobs, wages and ripple the multiplier effect into the economy.

    August 23, 2011 at 6:45 am | Reply
  14. DR

    Not one business person on the panel. That is what wrong with the US-allowing technocrats to format economic policy. These guys don't know how the real world works....

    August 23, 2011 at 11:59 am | Reply
  15. Drake Pendragon

    I find it amazing that no Globalist at CNN can see that the reason America cannot repay its debt, 16% of Americans are out of work, and 45 million Americans are on food stamps is because GWB and Congress allowed 42,400 factories to be transfrred offshore, with many millions of jobs, and trillions of dollars in GDP.

    The American economy has been stolen. The banking system bankrupted, and then pushed over the cliff to collect the insurance from the American people. DC should be burning and Wall Street should be in jail.

    August 23, 2011 at 7:41 pm | Reply
  16. Boring

    I will tend to agree to the proposals from UNITED NATIONS CONFERENCE ON TRADE AND DEVELOPMENT

    Fiscal tightening is not the appropriate response

    Main issues:

    Strong downside risks for a two-speed recovery that is losing steam in developed economies

    The need to move forward in the process of financial re-regulation and reform of the international monetary system

    Quick Links:

    TDR 2011 (Full Report)

    Press information

    TDR series (1996-2011)
    Globalization and Development

    Fiscal balance in most developed and developing economies had improved significantly between 2002 and 2007. This was mainly the result of:

    Strong output growth
    Lower interest rates
    The commodity price boom in some countries

    Fiscal space is a largely endogenous variable: A proactive fiscal policy will affect the fiscal balance by changing the macroeconomic situation.

    An expansionary fiscal policy can have strong effects on demand, increase private-sector incomes and generate higher fiscal revenues. The economic impact of fiscal policies can be extended by changing the composition of public expenditure or structuring public revenues to maximize their multiplier effects. This does not necessarily mean changing the total amount of expenditure or the fiscal balance.

    The way in which the public sector spends and taxes matters; the following are among the most effective tools for stimulating the economy, leading to job creation and increased demand:

    Increases in spending on infrastructure

    Social transfers

    Targeted subsidies for private investors

    If tax cuts are the preferred instrument, they should be applied to the lower-income groups. This will have a stronger impact on domestic spending than increasing disposable revenue of high-income groups.

    The way out of debt for highly indebted developed countries is to implement growth-enhancing fiscal, monetary and incomes policies. The best strategy for reducing public debt ratios is GDP growth, combined with low interest rates.

    September 7, 2011 at 2:54 pm | Reply
  17. Tahir

    Please look at, that plan will work.

    October 6, 2011 at 1:46 pm | Reply
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    October 26, 2011 at 8:36 am | Reply
  19. how to fix hard water

    We are a gaggle of volunteers and opening a brand new scheme in our community. Your site provided us with valuable information to paintings on. You have done a formidable activity and our whole community will be thankful to you.

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  20. Lindsay

    These are more of questions more than comments. Currently President Bara

    June 23, 2012 at 11:48 am | Reply


    The fiscal cliff is an illusion, created by the powers to be . It is purely a reversal of temporary tax cuts that were imposed. Our challenges are much larger and caused by inefficient beaurocracies and government policies over decades, as well as corporate greed and the desire for a oneworld currency banking system to benefit corporate profits and central banks around the world and their ability to influence governments.

    In order to remain the number one power in the world and have free, and fair financial markets
    and a prosperous economy we must all take part in, and benefit from the solution.

    Eliminate subsidies, loopholes and special interests (it will eliminate lobbying and allow for efficient and fair free markets.)

    Eliminate super-packs, they skew the election process. This was not our founding fathers intention.

    Lower corporate and personal tax rates, make them equal ( eliminating much cheating on taxes,
    creating more tax revenue and at the same time reducing the size of the monstrous and incomprehensible tax code, as well as reducing the IRS budget .

    Raise the minimum retirement age to 70 as a choice not a requirement. For that to work the business world also needs to hire people over 50

    Corporate management, directors and board-members all need to get a base salary , pay social security and FICA, rather than scam the system paying themselves $ 1 and a large stock compensation package
    to evade their fair share of taxes.

    Base wage to collect social security and payroll tax should be raised. (The share paid by corporations and businesses is a standard business deduction.
    (that will keep social security and medicaid/medicare solvent).

    Corporations evading US taxes, should not be allowed to sell their products in the US. (afterall the US
    is still the largest consumer).

    The costs of globalization cannot be imposed by impoverishing the american people and the rest of
    the developed world, so the corporate world can build a larger consumer base to peddle their
    products at ever decreasing developed world employee wages.

    Education is the key to success for the future. Not selective education, not undue testing and not
    incompetent tenured educators .
    There is no future without a solid foundation, which these days must include college in order to compete in the world. Again it should not be selective but broad and of their choosing. Otherwise we will always have too much of one or the other. (It should be a right to passage for all our young adults).
    Our young adults should not be bogged down with tens of thousands of dollars in debt at interest rates
    much too high, when mortgage rates are 3.5% and the bank interlending rate is under 1%.

    The population nearing or in retirement, most having paid their dues with blood, sweat and tears
    and of course as the largest payer of payroll and social security taxes, deserve better than living their
    so called golden years in utter poverty. They were the base that allowed corporations to prosper
    and become behemoths.

    October 27, 2012 at 10:03 am | Reply
  22. Dustin

    The economy can be fixed in a matter of weeks and put people back to work.First we need to drill for our own oil here we are paying for oil over seas and making them rich, We need to cut taxes on companys and fuel tax, Companys have to lay off workers to ship their goods Companys have to pay for the fuel and the taxes that is on that fuel to ship it is passed down to the consumer This is why food and goods are so high and people are not buying. Next they need to re vamp the tax system Go to a flat tax on income only. 28% no refunds on taxes everyone pays the same 28% 20 to run the government 8% on the debt. And quit printing money and the give aways. Someone needs to watch where the money goes and stop the waist

    August 28, 2011 at 9:50 am | Reply
  23. Donald

    Dustin you are so right, Oil companys passtheir taxes down to the trucking companys they pass it down to the shippers and they pass it down to the consumer. This why there is no jobs and companys are moving over seas. Wish The Administration would read this. But the don't And Flat tax that is the same as a fair tax on income yes that would pay for all programs but the money they run their campains with don't know how many times air force one is going to fly it cost a lot to fly that one and the other one with everyone else that don't like to fly with him.

    August 28, 2011 at 10:02 am | Reply
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    October 26, 2011 at 8:38 am | Reply
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    October 26, 2011 at 8:39 am | Reply

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