Jan

14

 This one is Eddy's fault. She wanted to know about the gold standard.

The authors of the Constitution had two concerns about money - first, they wanted the Federal government to be able to collect taxes to pay veterans' benefits and the cost of future wars; and, second, they wanted no one - the states, private individuals, the Federal government itself - to be able to deal in funny money. They thought they could solve both problems by giving the Federal government a monopoly on legal tender and then requiring Congress to limit the Money used in payment in the United States to Coin - i.e. precious metal. What is fraudulent about our present system is that the Federal government still has its legal tender monopoly but it no longer follows the rules laid out in the Constitution. Instead of using gold coin, the Federal government uses its own bank-created Credit as Money and requires all of us to accept it as the sole legal tender for all debts public and private.

The authors of the Constitution were so suspicious of what Congress might do that they did not even allow it to have a monopoly on Money. They required Congress to allow Foreign Coin to used as equivalents for the United States' own Coin. The authors of the Constitution knew from bitter experience that Congress was capable of being a fraud about money; country had seen the Continental Congress during the Revolution issue IOUs and then require people to take them in payment of the government's own debts. By allowing Foreign Coin to be Money, the authors of the Constitution were assuring that people could refuse to take any funny money that Congress tried to pass off in the future. This is why the Constitution has its specific provisions requiring Congress to "regulate" the Weight and Measure of both U.S. and Foreign Coin. "Regulate" does not mean "make up whatever rules we like" as it does now; it meant "make regular" - i.e. make equal.

Where the authors and the first Congresses made a mistake was in thinking that they could regulate more than 1 kind of precious metal as Money, that they could set by law the ratios of the prices of gold and silver and copper could be fixed, by law. They made this mistake because everyone in the world believed that Money had to have an official Price; it could not be left to the market to decide what Money was worth. (A few oddballs - the Frenchman Cantillon, the Englishman Gresham - knew better. They both observed that Money has to be unitary; otherwise, the smart people will always be swapping the cheaper metals for the more expensive ones.)

Even with this mistake of multi-metalism, the authors of the Constitution succeeded in achieving their aims for U.S. money. Congress was able to be extravagant - to start wars when they did not have the money to pay for them - without permanently destroying the value of the country's savings because no one could be forced to accept anything other than Coin as Money. If Money became short because people and/or the government had used too much credit, the people who had saved Money would find bargains. If people and/or the government became too cautious and hoarded Money, then the rewards for lending and granting Credit would go up. The interchange between Money and Credit would be the fundamental check and balance against future Congresses overreaching their financial authority. Under the Constitution Congress would be free to borrow on Credit like everyone else but it would only be allowed to coin Money or have Coin accepted as legal tender.

What the authors of the Constitution could not imagine is that future Congresses would allow the Federal government to use its own bank-created Credit as Money. That would have seemed to them against all common sense. Everyone in the country had known, from direct experience, that allowing Credit to become Money produced ruin. Savings became worthless, people abandoned work for speculation, and enterprise was destroyed. If the government's Credit was required to be accepted as legal tender, then everyone could go to the government to get their free Money. "Cash" would have no meaning because people could never be required to pay up in Coin. The authors of the Constitution knew that Credit was wonderful stuff. It was easier to use than specie and was flexible; people's ability to promise to pay was not limited by the coins in their pockets. But there had to a limit to how much people could promise and borrow, and that limit was Money; and Money had to be actual stuff that people could demand when they did not want paper, when they doubted that other people's Credit was good. Almost all of the time people would use Credit for trade; they would buy and sell things using Notes because it was the better way to do business. But, in the background of everyone's mind there still had to be the understanding that people could decline further exchange of credit and demand actual payment instead. With Credit there was always going to be the risk that one was getting a devious, suspect instrument of exchange. If people were free, they would trade; and, in trading, they would be certain to deal in all kinds of promises - some of which will be completely ludicrous. These rules would apply equally to the government and to private business. The Constitutional gold standard would not prevent people or Congress itself from committing fraud and folly; but it would assure that they were punished and not rewarded if Money was the stuff that was impossible to counterfeit and impossible to multiply with the stroke of a pen or the turn of a printing press (or, today, the click of a keyboard).

We now live in a very different world of Money and Credit. Foreign Coin is no longer a check and balance on Congress' monopoly authority over legal tender; every government in the world now uses its own IOUs as Money. That leaves only the Constitutional gold standard as a restraint on the government and people's ability to expand Credit without limit. The country has been here before. During and after the Civil War, the Federal government's IOUs - its Greenbacks - were made legal tender, by law. Many people thought this was fine and wanted Congress to keep printing Greenbacks to pay for rebuilding the country after the war. What Ulysses Grant understood was that if Congress kept spending Money as it had during the war, it would turn the country into a nation of monetary alcoholics. The demand for Credit would never be restrained. Almost single-handedly Grant forced the Congress to commit itself to restoring the gold standard, to promising to redeem all paper money in gold Coin. Many people were horrified by the idea; the New York Times (surprise!) predicted that there would be complete panic. Speculators tried to buy up all the country's gold. But, on the actual day when the Federal government resumed the convertibility of all U.S. Bank Notes into gold coin, the world did not rush to the Treasury to swap its paper for specie. The monetary day of judgment failed to appear and was, in fact, a big yawn. The very act of committing the U.S. to restoration of the Gold Standard had sufficiently re-established the credit of the U.S. government that people were content to continue to deal in the credit notes as if they were as good as gold - which they were.

The same result would happen today if Congress adopted a new Specie Act. I know this is a fantasy; but imagine that Congress enacted and the President signed a Specie Act that legisltated that, after January 1, 2013, U.S. Money would be a Liberty Coin of a fixed Weight and Measure of gold and all government Credit Notes - the paper currency called Federal Reserve Notes printed by the U.S. Treasury - would be convertible into Liberty Coin at the value set by the market . The market would instantly value our current Greenbacks at their worth would be in gold. A dollar whose fluctuating value would be fixed by the market's dealings would not, by itself, save the credit of the United States; but it would instantly end the further abuse of that credit by the Congress and the Federal Reserve. That might, by itself, be enough.

 A promise to pay can, as the original J. P. Morgan said, only be valued by the character of the borrower. As long as Money itself is solid, people can accept the risks of Credit as the price of its convenience and opportunity for gain. The very argument used against the gold standard - its inflexibility - is true; when one is well established, the price of gold itself becomes monotonously steady. It is the price of Credit that fluctuates. After President Grant's demand for resumption was enacted into law, the infamous Gold Room closed; and stock and bond markets and bank clearings in the United States exploded with a boom that was so real that it produced enough wealth that the country could, for the first time in its history, afford broad "higher" education.

It will not surprise you and it would not have surprised the authors of the Constitution that the first thing the new generation of professors and well-educated (sic) students did was decide that the archaic system of the gold standard had to be improved. The result was the funding of two World Wars and other systematic tortures that the world is still living under in the name of Progress.

Leo Jia comments:

 Thanks Stefan. Here are my thoughts on what you wrote.

From economic point of view, the functions of money are: 1) medium of exchange, 2) unit of account, and 3) store of value.

The biggest problem with fiat money (as we experienced) is its obvious inability to store value. On the other hand, commodity money is hard to transport. Recognizing these, many are inclined to accepting some kind of representative money, such as the gold standard.

It is understandable that people put more trust in things such as gold for a better store of value than in fiat money, simply because they are more real and can't be created from thin-air. This might be very true in simple or primitive economies. But is there any false reasoning here for modern economies? It is true that they can not be as easily created, but this in no way could necessarily lead to a conclusion of their better ability to store value or perform other money functions. My observations are as follows.

1) Any real thing (such as gold) changes value vis-a-vis other real things as economy develops through time. This is determined by the varying needs of human activities. In this sense, a lumber producer for instance may have good reasons not to trust gold to reserve his value of work (as gold could get cheaper while lumber gets dearer during some period of time).

2) The economic developments, following technological advancements or wars for instance, come in steps, which at many times are interruptions to old developments. After each step of development, the values of many thingsare largely re-adjusts. With the automobile invented for instance, the horse wagons lost substantial value. On the other hand, with a large gold mine discovered, gold's value vs. other things dive.

3) In the case of a step-up of the economy (due to an important technology break through, for instance), the requirement for capital jumps up. If the money is based on some real thing (such as gold), the money supply seriously lags in a way to hinder the economy development. Gold's supply has its own course of development. Except for a few large discoveries in history, gold's supply has been largely a gradually growing process, and this contrasts the nature of economic development, which often jumps, particularly in the modern age.

4) In the case of gold being a money base, the real question is why people would always treasure gold. Could the attitude change? From the nature that gold is of little real use, this is very likely somewhere down the road. All it needs is one country's abandoning the gold standard to wreck the whole world's economy. Before that happens, is people's pursuit of gold quite similar to a fool's game, where everyone owning gold is just hoping to sell it to a bigger fool?

In the modern world, when we have various developments in fast gears, we don't really have a money that meets the functions we want. It is very unfortunate. Perhaps the desire to have a store of value in something is generally a fallacy. Sure, the modern finance provides some possibilities for that desire, but modern finance is not for everybody.

Question: is it feasible to form a money based on some financially structured instruments?

Stefan Jovanovich replies: 

Leo, Thanks for the reply. I don't think you can support the notion that Money is a primary "medium of exchange" any more; it is, for the limited population of drug dealers and others wanting to hide their wealth from "the law", but the volume of credit transactions so completely dwarfs cash dealings now that I am afraid the standard textbook definition of money has to be retired from our discussions, even if it will always remain the correct answer for an Econ 1 class. The "store of value" notion has always been a canard. The notion of "value" itself is one of those Platonic ideas that it is impossible to abolish, precisely because it is never defined well enough to be tested or disproven. It is part of the equally bizarre idea of Capital - the notion that certain stuff and paper (in our age, digital entries) represent a "store of value". Once you accept the circularity of these terms, you never find the exit door into what people are actually doing. (Yes, yes I know about marginal utility, etc. but all of those wonderful theories can be reduced to something the money changers sitting outside the Temple knew - price is always a matter of quantity and time.)

Having endured the interminable sermons of their era (and decided, like Washington, that God existed outside of church as well as in), the authors of the Constitution were well acquainted with the theological approach to discussions about the economy. But, being practical men of business (even the lawyers among them were traders), they knew enough of the world to know that commerce would always rest on the foundation of credit. When counter-parties began to worry, "the economy" was in trouble, no matter how much gold was in the vault. They also knew that Money - specie - would always be the measure of the fundamental economic fact of life - scarcity. They counted on the fact that Money is always in short supply to be the principal limitation on the size of government itself. As the Founders knew, money is the spoil sport - the stuff that is unalterably real and cannot be talked into existence. Americans used to know this instinctively. There is the classic remark of t he real estate speculator in San Diego in the 1880s who got caught long and telegraphed to his partner back East: "Lost $100,000; still worse, $800 was in cash".

What the Founders and a majority of Americans in the 19th century did not think was that the government could somehow protect people from the vagaries of the market itself. They certainly did not think that gold - i.e. Money - could do that. The claims made for gold by the Paulistas - Don Ron made it again last night in the Republican primary debate in South Carolina - are specious. Gold is not a "store of value" and it has never protected people from the fluctuation of prices. As you noted, gold's exchange value fluctuates dramatically even under a Constitutional gold standard. Gold as Money is no more immune to market variation than Credit; both are subject to the vagaries of trade. What Gold as Money is not subject to are the manipulations of the government as ruled by faction. When George Washington warned against "faction", he was not cautioning people about political parties; he was cautioning them about the ability of people to use the government's monopoly au thority over legal tender to create credit in their particular favor. All gold offers is the assurance to the holder of Money that he/she has only one financial risk - the fluctuations of the market - and that he/she is safe from the cheats of government action in the name of the common good.

P.S. Your history about gold mining needs revision. The great discoveries - California in the 1840s, South Africa and Alaska in the 1890s - did not see "gold's value vs. other things dive"; on the contrary, the gold discoveries led to credit booms that saw general prices rise and specie become inexplicably tight. The Panic of 1907 arose because the London insurance companies were unable to pay their American claims from the San Francisco Fire; gold - within a decade of the greatest discovery in history - became so incredibly short that JP Morgan - for the first time in its history - agreed to join the New York Clearing House so that the banks would stop pulling each other down to ruin by acting like lobsters trying to climb over each other out of a barrel.

P.P.S. The notion of a Monetary base is beyond my capacity to argue with. If you accept the illusion that IOUs are Money, that the entries on the ledgers at the Federal Reserve and the Notes printed by the U.S. Treasury are somehow more "high-powered" than other forms of Credit, then the Ptolemaic system of modern academic economics seems to work fine - until, of course, it doesn't. The modern world has no problems with its system of Credit; its difficulties are with the absurd notion that the Unit of Account can be multiplied at will by central banks in the name of stability.

The questions of money and credit were not intellectual novelties for the founders or their contemporaries. They were - literally - the common coin of civil discourse. Hume's Essays - which were in the library of everyone who attended the Constitutional Convention - raised the issue directly:

"It is very tempting to a minister to employ such an expedient, as enables him to make a great figure during his administration, without overburthening the people with taxes, or exciting any immediate clamours against himself. The practice, therefore, of contracting debt will almost infallibly be abused, in every government. It would scarcely be more imprudent to give a prodigal son a credit in every banker's shop in London, than to impower a statesman to draw bills, in this manner, upon posterity. What then shall we say to the new paradox, that public incumbrances, are, of themselves, advantageous, independent of the necessity of contracting them; and that any state, even though it were not pressed by a foreign enemy, could not possibly have embraced a wiser expedient for promoting commerce and riches, than to create funds, and debts, and taxes, without limitation? Reasonings, such as these, might naturally have passed for trials of wit among rhetoricians, like the panegyrics on folly and a fever, on BUSIRIS and NERO, had we not seen such absurd maxims patronized by great ministers,(Robert Walpole) and by a whole party among us (the Whigs)."

Peter Saint-Andre comments:

 And hence there runs, from the first essays of reflective contemplation of a social phenomena down to our own times, an uninterrupted chain of disquisitions upon the nature and specific qualities of money in its relation to all that constitutes traffic. Philosophers, jurists, and historians, as well as economists, and even naturalists and mathematicians, have dealt with this notable problem, and there is no civilized people that has not furnished its quota to the abundant literature thereon. What is the nature of those little disks or documents, which in themselves seem to serve no useful purpose, and which nevertheless, in contradiction to the rest of experience, pass from one hand to another in exchange for the most useful commodities, nay, for which every one is so eagerly bent on surrendering his wares? Is money an organic member in the world of commodities, or is it an economic anomaly? Are we to refer its commercial currency and its value in trade to the same causes conditioning those of other goods, or are they the distinct product of convention and authority?

From On the Origin of Money by Carl Menger

Stefan Jovanovich writes: 

 Menger was the leading figure in the Austrian "Währungs-Enquete-Commission, the Monetary Commission called to deal with the problem of the Austrian currency. (Hayek: "Towards the end of the 'eighties the perennial Austrian currency problem had assumed a form where a drastic final reform seemed to become both possible and necessary. In 1878 and 1879 the fall of the price of silver had first brought the depreciated paper currency back to its silver parity and soon afterwards made it necessary to discontinue the free coinage of silver; since then the Austrian paper money had gradually appreciated in terms of silver and fluctuated in terms of gold. The situation during that period — in many respects one of the most interesting in monetary history — was more and more regarded as unsatisfactory, and as the financial position of Austria seemed for the first time for a long period strong enough to promise a period of stability, the Government was generally expected to take matters in hand. Moreover, the treaty concluded with Hungary in 1887 actually provided that a commission should immediately be appointed to discuss the preparatory measures necessary to make the resumption of specie payments possible. After considerable delay, due to the usual political difficulties between the two parts of the dual monarchy, the commission, or rather commissions, one for Austria and one for Hungary, were appointed and met in March 1892, in Vienna and Budapest respectively.)

According to Hayek, "Menger agreed with practically all the members of the commission that the adoption of the Gold Standard was the only practical course." What the Commission did not do was adopt the approach taken by the Americans a decades earlier. Instead of simply setting the weight and measure for Austrian Coin at an equivalence to the British pound - the reference point for all international transactions, the Commission debated "the practical problems of the exact parity to be chosen and the moment of time to be selected for the transition". That, by itself, did no great harm; but it established the principle - now universal - that the state, not the market, would be the ultimate arbiter of the content of Money. It is foolish of me to expect them to have done otherwise. Even though (or perhaps because) Menger was the author of utility theory, his political economy had an unshakeable belief in "essences", in the notion that political economy could be reduced to laws of motion, just like physics. The result was the Franco-Germanic idea of the "universal bank" - the Creditanstalt that would literally "manage" the economy and do away with the need for those messy people - the brokers and the dealers in stock - and their volatile exchanges.

For Menger there could be no difference between "the disks (and) documents" because all money was a creation of the state's authority. The American idea that you could bring bullion to the Mint and demand that they reduce it to legal tender - for free - was anathema.


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