Libertarianism – A Philosophy of Peace

If you are a libertarian, you should never cede the moral high ground.  That is one of the beauties about libertarianism, which hopefully most libertarians realize.  You have the moral high ground and pragmatism on your side.

If you are ever asked about libertarianism, you don’t necessarily have to try to convince the other person of your point of view.  Instead, just help them understand where you are coming from.  Imagine the following conversation.

Libertarian Guy (LG): Let’s say that your neighbor is really sick and needs money for an expensive surgery to help save him.  You go to another neighbor and ask if he can help out in providing any funds.  Do you agree that it is ok for you to ask your neighbor for some help?

Non-Libertarian Guy (NLG): Of course it is ok to ask.

LG: Good.  We agree on that point.  What happens if your neighbor refuses to help out with donating money?  Do you think it is ok if you take out a gun and demand that he help his other sick neighbor?

NLG:  Of course I don’t think it is ok.  It doesn’t matter if the other guy is sick.  You can’t just take out a gun and demand money.  That is violence and it would be a crime.

LG:  Good.  We completely agree on that point too.  Now let’s say that you get together the rest of your block and you hold a vote.  The majority of people on the block vote for you to take your gun and go back to that one neighbor’s house and demand some of his money to help the other sick neighbor.  Is it ok to use your gun since the majority of your block thinks it is ok?

NLG:  Well, I would hope that there wouldn’t be that many people who think that robbery is ok.  But, of course, it doesn’t matter what they say.  It doesn’t make it right.  You still can’t just go up and take the guy’s money at the point of a gun just because he doesn’t want to donate money.

LG:  Well, yet again, we agree.  We are in agreement in all of these points.  So you were wondering what makes me a libertarian.  I believe if the people on your block call you or themselves a state or a government, that it is still wrong to take the guy’s money at gunpoint.  That is the main difference between a libertarian and a non-libertarian.  Most non-libertarians live peacefully with others and wouldn’t dream of initiating force against others.  They just don’t apply this principle to the state.

End of Conversation

You can get into detailed issues about what constitutes the initiation of force and what constitutes self-defense.  You can get into details about how certain property rights are acquired and where property rights should and shouldn’t apply.  You can get into details about whether a state is legitimate if it only acts to protect people’s lives, liberty, and property.

But when you get down to it, the above example sums up what a libertarian is and isn’t.  Get agreements from non-libertarians on the above points and then point out the one simple, yet important, difference that makes you a libertarian.

Indiana Law Doesn’t Go Far Enough

There was legislation signed into law recently by the governor of Indiana, Mike Pence.  The law is named the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act.

Unsurprisingly, many people oppose the legislation, including some notable businessmen.  The most notable is Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, who said he was deeply disappointed.

The CEO of tweeted about his company drastically reducing investments in the state.  This is really kind of crazy because I would be boycotting every state and every country on earth if I did so on the basis of one bad law.

So what is so upsetting about this legislation?  Basically, it says that you can’t use the government’s guns in the state of Indiana to force people to associate with others where it interferes with their religious beliefs.  Of course, the critics aren’t putting it quite like this.

The critics are now saying that people are vulnerable to discrimination.  But I have some news for these people.  We are subject to discrimination almost every day of our lives.  As Walter Williams would say, he discriminated against all other women of the world the day he decided to marry his wife.

In this case, most of the focus is around gay people.  I don’t know the motivation of the Indiana governor or those in the legislature who supported this bill.  I don’t know if it is an anti-gay agenda or a pro-freedom agenda.  I suspect motivations differ widely and it might be a combination of reasons for different people who support this legislation.

This stems from ridiculous lawsuits where gay people have sued florists and bakers for refusing to do business with them for their weddings.  If someone doesn’t want to bake a cake for a gay couple’s wedding, then instead of just moving on to the next baker, the gay couple thinks it is appropriate to use guns in order to force people to bake a cake, or else use the guns to take money from the baker or kidnap the baker if he refuses to pay the fine.

The gay couples in question do not use their own guns.  They use the guns of the government, so they think that makes it ok.

This scenario applies to anybody and any group.  This is a violation of property rights and a violation of freedom of association.

The problem with the Indiana law is that it is using religion as the excuse.  But religion isn’t the issue.  A baker should be able to refuse to do business with anyone, regardless of the reason, unless he is obligated under a voluntary contract.  The baker should be able to discriminate for any reason because it is his time and his property.

What if a baker only wants to bake cakes for kids?  Should he then be obligated to bake cakes for anyone?

Unfortunately, many people do not understand the difference between supporting an action and supporting the use of government guns to obligate that action.

It doesn’t matter if you support certain forms of discrimination or you completely oppose them.  The question is whether you believe in the use of violence to solve the problem.  This is a liberty issue and nothing else.

CPI Numbers for February 2015

I am going to continue to watch the CPI numbers closely.  I know they are government numbers and there are issues with the calculations, but they do serve a purpose.

First, the numbers can at least give us a trend for consumer prices.  This obviously doesn’t factor in many asset prices, but it is still useful.

A second reason to pay attention to the CPI numbers is for the simple fact that the financial media, and the Fed itself, pay attention to these numbers.  If the Fed is going to make a decision based on higher or lower than expected CPI numbers, then it will affect all of us.

The latest numbers are out for February 2015.  There is typically close to a month delay.  The percent change over the last 12 months is zero.  We are officially flat.  If you use the CPI excluding food and energy, then it shows a 1.7 percent increase year over year.  So a big part of the deceleration in consumer price inflation is due to the drop in oil.

The median CPI is 2.2% year over year.  It has shown this same number for the last 5 months.  The median CPI tends to be a good measure.  As you can see, it is far less volatile.

While consumers always benefit from price deflation, assuming it isn’t a crash from a previous artificial boom, the numbers are still relatively tame right now, even with slight increases.  The Fed supposedly targets a 2% rate, which is ridiculous by itself, but the CPI is below that target right now, unless you use the median CPI.

For this reason and others, I really don’t expect the Fed to reduce its balance sheet by any significant amount in the future.  There is little reason in the eyes of the Fed to have monetary deflation when price inflation is mild.

This doesn’t mean the Fed won’t raise the federal funds rate by increasing the rate it pays to banks on reserves.  But even here, I think the relatively low CPI numbers will make the Fed hesitate more and increase rates more gradually.  This may be temporarily bullish for stocks, but we can’t be certain.

Assuming oil prices have leveled off, I expect the CPI numbers to turn positive again.  If they don’t, this will be further reason to expect the Fed to act slowly, if at all, in raising its benchmark rate.

With low price inflation numbers and a strong dollar, along with massive monetary inflation by the ECB and BOJ, I won’t be surprised if we are talking about QE4 this time next year.

TurboTax vs. H&R Block

I want to briefly discuss the wonders of free market competition.  While the U.S. tax code and free market economics do not really go too well together, this is an exception.

Tens of millions of Americans have to suffer through tax time during this time of the year.  Billions of man hours are wasted filling out tax forms.  This doesn’t account for the huge expenses in time and money that companies have to go through just to abide by the law in providing the proper tax forms.

You can take your tax information to a professional for help, which will set you back a few hundred dollars or more if you have anything complicated such as investments, rental property, or a business.  If you want to attempt to do it yourself, there is software that can help.

The biggest name in tax software is TurboTax.  The biggest name in tax preparation help is H&R Block.

In 2015, TurboTax decided to shake things up a bit.  The company changed its software from what it previously offered.  For example, if you have investment capital gains and dividends, or if you have a rental property, you could previously have used TurboTax Basic and it worked for these things.  You could upgrade to Deluxe or Premier for more help or more in-depth items.

This year, for the 2014 tax year, TurboTax Basic does not do much, unless you are just filling out a basic tax return with a W-2.  If you have investments or rental properties, then you will have to get the Premier edition, which will probably run you around $75 or more.  In the past, you could use the Basic for $20.

Needless to say, TurboTax has received a lot of complaints.  If you look at the reviews on Amazon, it is mostly one and two star reviews.  When you raise prices on loyal customers from about $20 to about $75, there is probably going to be a backlash.  And to make it worse, some people bought the Basic edition or the Deluxe edition thinking it would do the same as last year.

I wonder what bureaucrats at Intuit (the owner of TurboTax) sat down and came up with this brilliant idea to raise more revenue.  I can just imagine a bunch of senior executives dressed in suits sitting in a conference room scheming about this brilliant plan.

Who knows; maybe it will be a good move.  Some people are paying the higher price, which is a lot higher.  But I also know of people refusing to use TurboTax, not only because of the high price, but just out of principle because they see this as a sleazy tactic by the company.

Meanwhile, H&R Block, a competitor, is offering free software for this year only to certain TurboTax customers if they can show their receipt.  This is a great marketing ploy by H&R Block to obtain new customers.

Even if Intuit increases revenue this year from TurboTax, what is to say that more customers won’t leave next year?  Here is a company with a solid customer base and it just turned its back on its customers.  Sure, they have apologized for “the confusion”, but there really is no confusion now.  Customers are going elsewhere because they don’t want to be treated this way.

This is really the free market at work.  It just shows that companies cannot just take their customers for granted.  They can’t just raise prices like crazy and expect that the customers will take it.

If Intuit is wise, it will revert back to the old TurboTax editions from the 2013 tax year.  It is too late this year, but we’ll see what happens next year.  If not, I expect customers to continue to slip away and find other alternatives.  In a relatively free market, the customer is king.  The customers vote with their money and where to spend it.  If a company doesn’t respect its customers, it won’t be around for too long, assuming it doesn’t get help from the government.

Stock Bubble vs. Real Estate Bubble

There is little question that there is some kind of asset bubble that has been created by the Federal Reserve.  The Fed has quintupled the adjusted monetary base since the fall of 2008.

While much of this new money went into excess reserves at the commercial banks, it is still monetary inflation.  It has served to bail out the banks, fund deficits by Congress, and misallocate resources.

Consumer price inflation, as measured by the CPI, has been tame.  But this was also true in 1929 before the stock market tanked and the Great Depression came.  The monetary inflation resulted more in asset price inflation, rather than consumer price inflation.

I see the same scenario now with stocks.  I really do believe we are in a stock bubble.  I am not saying this is just like 1929 because there are major differences, such as the existence of the FDIC.

Even if this were comparable to the 1920s, we may not be in 1929 yet.  We may be in 1927 or 1928.  That is the thing with bubbles.  The mania can last for a long time.

I thought the Chinese real estate bubble would have popped by now. And while there has been a slowdown there, it has not yet come crashing down yet.

There is a quote attributed to Keynes where he said that markets can remain irrational longer than you can remain solvent.  I think this is good investment advice, particularly in times like today.

I am not recommending a big position in stocks.  I am quite fearful of stocks right now and trying to warn people.  At the same time, the bubble may go for another major run before things turn down.  Maybe we will see Dow 20,000 first.  Maybe it will be even higher.

This is not at all a prediction.  If I had to bet, I think the market will go down this year.  But again, timing is difficult, especially when you are dealing with bubbles.  That is the problem with bubbles.  It is a mania and you can’t really use rational thought to bet against it.  A mania defies rational thought.

In terms of real estate, I am not too fearful of a bubble.  It is certainly quite possible that real estate could go down 10 to 20 percent if we hit another recession.

There are a few areas where I would be worried.  New York and San Francisco come to mind, where real estate prices are sky high.  There are also portions of Canada, such as the Toronto area.  Of course, I already mentioned China and its real estate bubble.

There are certainly good reasons why prices are higher in some big cities, but it just makes it more risky to own real estate there.

In most places in the U.S., you are probably going to be ok if you own real estate, as long as you aren’t trying to flip something.  The best test is to compare rents to mortgages.  If you can buy a place for less than 20% down, and the rent will cover your expenses (mortgage, taxes, insurance, association fees, repairs), then you shouldn’t worry about a bubble.

When the housing bubble popped from around 2007 to 2010, rents did not go down that much.  They went down a little, but nothing compared to prices.  So if you are buying an investment property and you can get positive cash flow, you shouldn’t worry about a housing bubble as long as you plan to keep the place for a while.

I think real estate is a better investment than stocks right now.  In a couple of years, they may both be attractive investments if the asset bubble pops.  At that point, some people may give up on stocks.  That will be a better time to buy them.

FOMC Statement – March 18, 2015

The FOMC has released its latest monetary policy statement.  You can read it here, but it probably isn’t necessary this time around.

The big news is that the word “patient” has been dropped.  Janet Yellen has assured us that this doesn’t mean the Fed will be impatient either.  Analysts are taking this to mean that the first rate hike will not occur until June or later.

Analysts are also now expecting the rate increases to be less dramatic once they start coming.  For this reason, markets soared on Wednesday.  Stocks were up.  Gold was up.  Bonds were up.

Yellen held a press conference at the end.  One interesting thing I noted was her saying that the Fed will consider stopping its policy of rolling over maturing debt at some point in the unspecified future.

Right now, it is the Fed’s policy to roll over maturing debt.  This keeps the monetary base stable.  If the Fed allows debt to mature, it essentially removes assets from its balance sheet.  This would be monetary deflation.

I find it almost impossible to believe that the Fed is going to reduce its balance sheet in any significant way in the future, especially if the CPI remains relatively low.

As far as the rate hikes go, I don’t think they matter much except in terms of perception.  Since the Fed won’t be significantly reducing its balance sheet any time soon, the only way to raise the federal funds rate is to increase the rate paid to banks for their excess reserves.

I see this whole big deal about raising rates as nothing more than giving another bailout to the banks.  Raising rates is not going to affect the monetary base in the near term.  Raising rates may not even affect market interest rates.  The 10-year yield continues to hang around the 2% mark, despite expectations of a Fed hike later this year.

I think the big things to pay attention to are the CPI numbers (because the Fed watches this) and the overall economy.  If we see signs of a deep recession coming or if the stock market tanks, then I think all of the talk will change quickly.  The question at that point will be when the Fed starts another round of so-called QE and how big it will be.

Rand Paul Oversteps

For some reason, Rand Paul has a lot of supporters who also support his father – Ron Paul.  Many Ron Paul supporters found the liberty movement in 2007/ 2008  or 2011/ 2012 during his presidential campaigns.  They are hungry for some decent politicians (oxymoron?) and for some real change.

Some Ron supporters have defaulted to Rand.  But Rand is no Ron, as some are still finding out.

Rand Paul is a politician.  It was always hard to consider Ron Paul a politician.  He has always been principled and he just happened to get elected to Congress.

Rand Paul is going to run for president, unless he figures that he has little chance.  He plays politics.  He will say different things to different crowds.

I understand you don’t go to a Christian group and lead off with ending the drug war.  I understand you don’t go to a minority group and lead off with ending all laws against discrimination because they violate property rights.  However, with that said, Ron Paul did speak to a group of Cuban-Americans and told them he favors ending the embargo on Cuba.

My point is that you deliver your message in a way that is likely to be well received, at least by some people.  You are selling your message.  The problem arises when you change your message and you don’t stick to principles.

Rand Paul posted the following on Facebook: “Hillary Clinton simply does not recognize the threat that the world faces from a nuclear Iran.  Play our ‘Who Said It?’ game and see if you can tell the different between statements from Hillary Clinton and and Ayatollah spokesman.”

First, Hillary Clinton is a warmonger, so he is doing a complete disservice to make it sound as if she is some kind of non-interventionist.

Second, if Rand Paul is being hard on Hillary Clinton for being too soft on Iran, I wonder what he is saying about his dad.

Third, Rand Paul is showing that he simply cannot be trusted, particularly in regards to foreign policy.  I have seen through him from the beginning and have never trusted him.  I have spoken to libertarians who have criticized me for this, or at least disagreed.

This Facebook post comes right after Rand Paul joined most of the Republican senators (47 in all) in signing a warning letter to Iranian officials that they would not go along with Obama’s attempts at making peace with Iran.

Again, Obama also has a bad record on foreign policy, but the Republican Congress actually makes him look good, despite his drone bombings, sanctions, and war making.

The best part of that Facebook post were the comments by his “friends”.  They are calling him a neocon.  They are telling him to stop beating the war drums.  They are telling him that he needs to listen to his father.

I once thought Rand Paul had a decent chance of getting the Republican nomination.  I no longer think this is likely, unless he just completely abandons his base, whatever that is.

I don’t think Rand can succeed just from establishment support.  Why wouldn’t the establishment just support Jeb Bush or Scott Walker?

Rand Paul has been trying to play both sides of the fence since the time he started running for the Senate.  It hasn’t changed.  It is probably getting worse now that he is in the Senate and he is probably running for president.  He isn’t going to succeed by losing most of the supporters of his father.

If he really wants to play politics, he would make sure to at least appease his base, which is mainly a portion of Ron Paul supporters.  I don’t think supporting a Fed audit is going to cut it, especially when he is beating the war drums on Iran.

I will not vote for Rand Paul in 2016.  I will at least consider Jesse Ventura in 2016 if he runs.  I probably agree with Rand Paul’s economics more than Ventura’s.  But I trust Jesse Ventura more to do the right thing.  I particularly trust him more when it comes to foreign policy, which is the most important issue for a president.

House Rich, Cash Poor

It amazes me how many Americans are really house rich and cash poor.  If you do a measure of net worth (assets minus liabilities), I’m guessing that a good portion of Americans have a majority of their net worth as equity in their house.  This is even after the housing bust from the late 2000s.

Home ownership is obviously encouraged in the U.S.  Most middle class families will own, as opposed to renting.  Perhaps part of this is due to incentives by the government and Federal Reserve (artificially low interest rates and inflation).  But part of it may also be societal pressure.  Part of it is also just wanting to own something and make it your own.  This last piece is particularly true for women.  Women don’t want a house.  They want a home.

I see buying a house as something of a forced savings plan.  As long as you don’t continue to move or refinance or tap an equity line of credit, then you are going to slowly pay down the principal balance on your mortgage.  If someone stays in the same house for 30 years and doesn’t refinance for an extended term, then they will find themselves owning a house outright after 30 years.

Owning a house doesn’t always make sense.  There are many reasons to rent, especially for people with less money and people who want the flexibility to move quickly.  But since so many Americans lack the discipline to save, owning a house can be beneficial because it is like a forced savings plan.  That is why the majority of wealth for middle class Americans is in their house and 401k or other retirement plan.

Of course, it is best if you can be a disciplined saver and put money aside that isn’t just going to pay down your mortgage.  The decision to rent or own should be done on its own merits and not be decided just because you are a terrible saver.

I find this similar to a whole life insurance plan.  I generally recommend against whole life insurance.  I am definitely one who would say that you should buy term and invest the difference.  But whole life plans have probably benefitted a few people over the years because it has forced them to save money.  It may not have been the optimal way to save, but if they hadn’t bought the whole life insurance, they probably wouldn’t have saved at all.

One thing I find crazy is when I hear people who own expensive houses/ properties and yet have almost nothing in retirement or savings.  I have heard stories of people with million dollar houses in California, that are often paid off or closed to paid off, yet they don’t have any liquid savings.

If I were in this situation, I would sell the house and either rent or move.  If you have a high income, such as a successful Hollywood actor, then moving may not make sense.  In this case, you can rent.

It is crazier when I hear someone in California who makes $80,000 per year.  They could move to Texas or Florida (no state income taxes) and make $60,000 per year instead.  But the key is that they could buy a similar house for 20% of the cost of a house in some areas of California.

I understand that some people like the lifestyle or they have family ties in a particular area.  But some of these people are so house rich and cash poor that they could become instant millionaires just by moving.  They could practically retire or go down to part-time work just from the sale of their house.

Houses are things.  You need some form of shelter to live in, but there is a lot of flexibility as to where that is.  Money can buy you lifestyle.  It doesn’t do you much good to live by the beach in California if you have to work most of the time to pay for it.

Ukraine Interest Rates Hit 30%

The central bank of Ukraine raised interest rates in the first week of March to 30%.  According to this article, inflation is expected to hit at least 26% this year.  The currency used in Ukraine (the hryvnia) has lost about 80% of its value in less than a year.

I won’t get too much into foreign policy and war in this article, although the violence and conflict in Ukraine is obviously partially a cause of the major economic troubles there.

Ukraine is an extremely poor country.  In comparison, Russia is well-off economically.  It should not be too surprising that most people in Crimea wanted to join Russia, just looking at it from an economic standpoint alone.  If geo-politics weren’t a factor, I’m not sure why Russia would want to absorb Crimea.  Why would you want to take on a lot of poor people?

It is interesting though that the central bank had to take these drastic measures just to prevent its currency from being completely abandoned.  This is what happens when hyperinflation threatens.

The point here is that there comes a day of reckoning and there are limits to even what a central bank can do.  Being in the United States, I know it seems that the Fed can do practically anything without limits.  But there really are limits.  That limit is massive price inflation, or worse, hyperinflation.

When there was double-digit price inflation in the 1970s, it took Paul Volcker to come into the Fed and allow interest rates to skyrocket.  He stopped the monetary printing presses.

There are going to be consequences to the Fed’s previous monetary inflation of the last 6 and a half years.  We may fall into another deep recession.  If the Fed tries to pump in more money, we are eventually going to hit a point where a lot people start questioning the dollar.  The Fed cannot keep injecting massive amounts of money forever.  It is on hold right now, but I don’t think it will stay like this if we hit another recession.

I’m not predicting 30% interest rates in the United States.  What I am saying is that there are limits to what the Fed can do.  At some point, it will have to let all of the misallocations reveal themselves and let the market correct.  I don’t think the Fed is going to allow hyperinflation to happen.

Hillary Clinton Shunned by the Establishment

Hillary Clinton has been in the news, especially if you get your news on the web.  The latest scandal involves her use of private emails and it is coming at a time when presidential contenders are making their aspirations known.

Anyone who has followed Hillary Clinton knows that she has wanted to be president for a long time.  Saturday Night Live has made fun of her for this and continues to do so.

She is addicted to power and control, and any advocate of liberty should be very concerned when someone seeks power this intensively.

I don’t really care about this whole email scandal.  She may or may not be guilty of something.  But don’t think this is a vast right-wing conspiracy.  I think this may be the establishment taking down Hillary.  It may be the Democrats more than the Republicans.

I see two possible reasons for this.  The first is that there is simply Clinton fatigue in the U.S.  The same thing could happen to Jeb Bush.  I actually don’t think the establishment wants a Bush vs. Clinton matchup because it would be too obvious.  The American people might begin to realize that these elections are a sham and that we are ruled by oligarchs.

To go along with this, Democrats may not want her to get the nomination for the simple reason that she will lose.  Most people love her or hate her, but the hate side is at almost 50%, which makes it tough to win an election.  She could win if she had a similar scenario as her husband where a third-party candidate runs.  She might win with 40% of the popular vote.

The other possible reason for the establishment all of a sudden turning on her is because they are afraid of what might be revealed if she does run for president and she gets the nomination.  They may just be hoping that she goes away quietly.

The Clintons have a lot of skeletons in their past.  There are Clinton body counts on the internet.  I know there are conspiracy theories for almost anything out there, but it really is crazy how many people associated with the Clintons have died at a young age or went to jail.

Vince Foster is the most famous one associated with the Clintons.  He committed suicide, if you believe the official reports.  He was a close associate of the Clintons and was a partner at the Rose Law Firm in Arkansas.

For conspiracy theorists, the most interesting one is John F. Kennedy Jr., who died in a plane crash in July 1999.  There are some reports that he was about to announce his candidacy for the U.S. Senate out of New York.  He is probably the one person who could have beaten Hillary Clinton, who was elected to the Senate a year later.  Hillary saw the senate as a stepping stone to the presidency, in case it wasn’t obvious.

Regardless of whether you believe this stuff, I believe that the establishment is nervous about having a Hillary Clinton candidacy.  The internet has reached new proportions and things get exposed and uncovered as never before.  If Hillary runs for president, there will be a spotlight on her and you never know what story from her past may come back to haunt her.  It isn’t going to be something relatively minor like private emails, unless those emails are fully exposed.

The establishment wants to keep the status quo.  They don’t want bad publicity.  They would rather have presidential candidates who have a cleaner past.  That is my guess anyway.