The gold standard is coming back in a a big way. Not only do a number of recently elected congressman and Senators favor a return to the gold standard: the President of the World Bank recently initiated a conversation about returning to gold, and the New York Times recently ran an editorial by James Grant on the urgent need to bring gold back. Fox News has guests arguing that return to gold is already happening. Right wing TV and radio advertisers constantly promote gold as a hedge against the coming disaster. A German company is apparently making gold vending machines, so that you can insert your credit card and get back a small amount of gold. What you’ll do with one gram gold bars is unclear.
People often say that our paper money is “backed by nothing,” but this isn’t true at all. It’s backed by our collective labors, the “gross national product;” by the physical assets of the United States of America, its lands and parks and forests; by its military and its courts, by the rule of law: hardly nothing, these count among the greatest achievements in human history. Soldiers and Marines fight and die for these things every day. To say our money is backed by nothing is to say that the United States is nothing.
But it’s true: you can’t walk into to a bank, present some paper money, and ask for the United States of America in return. No single, tangible commodity backs our money: there’s no gold standard, no silver standard, just paper. And the amount of paper in circulation varies according to a bunch of things, including how the Federal Reserve thinks we are doing.
People who like the idea of a gold standard like the idea that gold has “real,” “intrinsic” value, which is a fancy way of saying it just is valuable, in the same way that lead is heavy. “Value,” they argue, is a property installed in gold by God or nature. An economy based on gold is thus an economy founded in natural law: gold bugs dream of an economy which government can’t tamper with. All values will be “real” values. The government can’t issue more gold, so it can’t create debt by simply printing more money.
This is mostly true, but most people stop and think a bit when it’s pointed out the the Revolutionary war, the Civil War, and WWII were all financed by printing paper money, as was the defeat of the Soviet Union in the Cold War, the construction of the Federal Highway system, the Manhattan Project, the development of the Internet, the founding of Microsoft-I could go on.
And also, a gold standard would not really stop the magical creation of money, unless you’re going to insist on using gold coins only. A bank always lends out more money than it has in its vaults: it has $50,000 in cash, but it lends out $100,000. The bank is “creating money” by making a bet on the creative powers of the people it lends to, like Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life. A gold standard won’t stop this. And if it did stop it, it would be the end of industrial capitalism, which is based entirely on credit, and on creating new money by lending. When we get the loan, on good terms, we tend to like credit. When lots of loans default, as in 2008, we tend to think credit is bad and we want “real” values again.
Gold bugs think paper money causes inflation not just in the sense of high prices, but in a general sense of “society out of control.” Here’s an interesting example, a cartoon by Thomas Nast published in 1876.
Nast depicts a world gone crazy. In the cartoon paper money, the “rag baby,” amounts to a silly, childish delusion that denies reality. But consider the drawing of a cow: “this is a cow, by act of the artist.” Paper cows don’t give milk. But a really good drawing of a cow could easily be worth more than an actual cow. And in Chicago, even as Nast worked, traders speculated in the futures market, in which hypothetical cows and non-existent bushels of wheat represented only by pieces of paper daily made and lost fortunes.
Nast’s drawing shows how he wants things to be “real,” to be literal. But the drawing itself, nothing more than lines on paper, creates value: it expresses real political arguments: “this is the gold bug position, by act of the artist.” Added to a book on money, it increased the book’s value.
Nast is a great example of how mere marks on paper can create value. Ask most Americans about “Boss” Tweed and a Nast cartoon, recalled from some textbook, springs to mind. Even more, Nast often gets credit for inventing Santa Claus: his paper imaginings of the jolly bearded elf-master now support an industry that annually generates billions of dollars: an entirely fictitious person generating massively real economic effects. So if Nast’s paper drawings can embody Santa Claus, and create value, why can’t paper money?
The MIT economist Frances Walker[1. Walker was a big deal in his day–a journalist and influential professor, he also served as supervisor of the census, where he argued we should prevent the immigration of “low wage races.”] claimed in 1889 that paper money caused not just high prices: it caused bad taste in clothing, it created both effeminacy and coarseness; it undermined male authority: it increased foreign influence and put the wrong sort of people in charge.
I need not recall the wanton bravery of apparel and equipage; the creation of a countless host of artificial necessities in the family beyond the power of the husband and Father to supply…the humiliating imitations of foreign habits of living…the loss of that fit and natural leadership of taste and fashion.
All this caused by paper money! Clearly what was at stake was more than just prices.
When you see arguments for the gold standard, look how often they are linked to a sense of general derangement in social affairs, or apocalyptic arguments about collapse and degeneracy. It is certainly true that hyperinflation, a condition where prices spiral upward out of control, is a disaster. But when the ostensibly reasonable James Grant, writing in the New York Times, praises gold for its “its utility, economy and elegance,” and warns that paper money will cause “wall-to-wall European tourists on the sidewalks of Manhattan” something besides the price of eggs is at stake.
The gold standard has never prevented economic boom and bust cycles, and in never can, because there is no “real” price, and value is not a thing, it’s a process. You often hear economic analysts or journalists talking about a “market correction,” as if market made some mistake and got back to the “correct” price; or the guys on NPR’s Marketplace talking about stocks being “overvalued.” Neither of these terms make any sense: the value or price is simply what people are willing to pay, and that changes with time and circumstance. There is no “real” price.
It’s comforting to believe there is: hence the enduring fantasy of the gold standard. Slate ran a good piece on what would happen if we returned to the gold standard. You can add to that rapid deflation and spikes in interest rates. Deflation sounds good, except that interest rates would spike while the prices manufacturers and businesses could get for their goods would collapse. Deflation was precisely the problem in 1932. But one set of people would benefit to a remarkable degree, and that is, those who hold capital, e.g the rich. The value of their money would skyrocket, as would the price they could demand for lending it.
So when you see arguments for the gold standard look for the obiter dicta, the rhetorical flourishes used to make the argument. And consider who stands to gain the most by a return to the favored scheme of Gilded Age robber barons.
Update: More on gold language
Love it when you talk about the gold standard, Mike. One of the other unfortunate characteristics of the gold standard is its inflexibility. When times are good the gold standard behaves; when times are bad, it is very obdurate, and governments have little wiggle room. Liaquat Ahmed in Lords of Finance has the best discussion of the gold standard that I’ve read in a long time. As you point point out, the gold standard is an enduring fantasy.
If there were a gold standard then the money supply would cease to be linked to the state of the economy.
Instead it would be largely at the mercy of others who chose to hoard gold as France apparently did during the great Depression apparently by setting its exchange rate too low.
Anyone care to guess how much gold would be left outside of China by year-end if we readopted the gold standard?
Why gold is better than cash
The reason these individuals hoard precious metals is the basic hypothesis of this article: they will dishoard gold when paper money stops losing its value. We should therefore consider the extent and speed of this loss. In 1973 there were US$1,120 of demand deposits plus cash currency for every ounce of gold owned by the US government[i]. Today, including excess reserves held at the Fed and the $600bn to be printed over the next seven months, the figure stands at $26,512[ii]. In 1973 there were twelve times as many dollars as there was gold at the market price, compared with nearly 20 times today, so paper dollars are more overvalued in gold terms today than at the time when the gold price was only $100.
This analysis may turn out to be unfortunately right, or hopefully wrong; but it is more right today than it was last month and also progressively so for the months before that. The rising interest in precious metals is entirely consistent with the growing likelihood that the printing of fiat currencies will continue to accelerate in order to buy off default. While the translation of monetary inflation into price inflation is rarely an even result, we know from both economics and the experience of history that the two are linked as cause and effect respectively. So we can conclude that paper money will continue to lose its value for the foreseeable future.
The dollar is de facto backed by oil, since oil is priced in dollars. Historically, gold is a wondrous and even magical safeguard for wealth, because it’s fungible. However, you cannot put it into your gas tank or eat it. We’re in an ecologically rooted sustainability crisis which manifests in fiscal, financial and economic dimensions -primarily the exposure of Ponzi schemes no longer viable in a contracting economy.
Thank you for these comments. It seems to me that there’s nothing new or surprising about the price of commodities fluctuating relative to the dollar–commodities would fluctuate in price relative to gold. What I find interesting is the apocalyptic rhetoric and the way economics as a discipline both casts itself as objective and rational and keeps incorporating the rhetoric of looming crisis and social collapse.
Individuals can choose to live on a gold standard, simply by converting most of their investments into gold bullion and keeping it in a safe deposit box. A choice to do so would have made great sense in Poland, Argentina, Bolivia, and Zimbabwe in recent years. Just as these countries just let the printing presses run, the US dollar will have the same problem unless we change our direction.
Ask anyone in those four countries if during their inflation they would rather own Gold or billions of worthless paper currency. And remember that there was a time not so long ago when a $20 bought a gold coin of one ounce.
Credit can happen with a gold backed currency. You just can’t invent money out of thin air as we do now. Credit is simply how folks with money to invest make more money by loaning it out.
Your arguments are hyperbolic, incoherent and incomplete.
1) you fail to demonstrate that under a gold standard money can lose its value as rapidly as under a fiat system.
For example, the Romans padded gold coins with other materials, but in modern times they can’t fool us like that. Are there other ways to fool us perhaps? I can’t find any. Can you? Please show us ONE example of when money lost TONS of value Wiemar-style under a true gold standard system.
2) you claim that the dollar is backed by our labor, land, laws etc. Wrong and incoherent. Example: If the Chinese want to sell off their treasuries and buy our labor/assets with the proceeds, they can buy our equities, our land, etc. So what price will they pay? If we owe them a trillion dollars they can buy a trillion dollars worth of assets. BUT if we inflate the currency by 2x, then the price of everything will double and the same stuff will be valued at 2 trillion. The Chinese will then only be able to buy half of the amount of labor/assets that they could have bought before, so under this scenario we screwed them, their claims in our dollars were NOT BACKED by these assets and we therefore lost credibility. They worked hard to pile up a trillion bucks, but now a trillion bucks is only worth half of the work. In other words, they worked twice as hard as they thought they would.
But actually, it’s not even that. There is an even more logical and direct way to look at this. When they hold a federal reserve note or a treasury, they are entitled to that NUMBER, One Trillion dollars, NO MATTER how we manipulate our money supply. In other words, when they lend us that money, at the moment of the ORIGINATION of the loan, they already agreed to take on the risk of dilution!! So we didn’t actually exactly screw them, they kind of screwed themselves. They bear responsibility also. The notes/bills/bonds legally bind the US to pay a specific number of dollars.
*NOT* a specific acreage of land
*NOT* a specific number of hours of labor
*NOT* anything! (other than a number of dollars)
So how can you say that the note is backed by these things??? you are totally and absolutely wrong.
There is much more wrong with your article but with these 2 points I think a whole deconstruction can be started.
You make my basic point–you are upset that paper money is not “real” and that the values/prices it produces are not stable, and you want gold because you imagine it will produce “real” values and prices.
Our money is clearly backed by the things I described, but of course, the things I described–the creative labors of the US people, the physical assets of the US–are not themselves fixed in value. They fluctuate according to the dame things that cause all other values to fluctuate.
Isn’t the point of financial negotiation fluctuating prices and values? Wouldn’t price stability equal stagnation? Are you suggesting that under a gold standard, prices and values would never change, so the trillions of dollars the Chinese spend would always be exactly the same?
Gold bugs, it seems to me, are all basically mercantilists–the believe that wealth is finite, or they want to believe it, and in that sense there’s an odd anti-capitalist quality to the language.
Bust, sure, I’m happy to admit that its easier to cause inflation with paper money. I already said that.
First you must define what a monetary system under a gold standard is.
If it is actually using the physical metal for exchange, then you run into some serious physical constraint issues.
For example, spread the total gold supply across all the assets and productive capacity in the world today. How much gold are your shoes worth? Or should I say, how many gold atoms are your shoes worth?
If it using some representation, such as certificates – then whatever authority is responsible for the integrity of those certificates can just as easily inflate the currency as under a fiat currency.
Any safeguards you propose to maintain the integrity of a gold standard system (audits, etc.), can just as easily be applied to a fiat system.
The integrity of a monetary system is based on politics, there is no magical silver (or gold) bullet that will solve this problem.
Any safeguards you propose to maintain the integrity of a gold standard system (audits, etc.), can just as easily be applied to a fiat system.
I wondered where Alan Greenspan went when he was allowed to wander away from assisted living. Apparently he wound up posting here!
The real problem is FRACTIONAL RESERVE BANKING and the fact that we allow banks to lend out their deposits 10:1. In truth, most of our TBTF banks are actually levered 100:1. It’s insanity and people who are promoting gold are trying to restore some discipline to an out of control system. Dollar bugs (you like to use the pejorative term gold bugs) will soon be able to wall paper their homes with their dollars. I’ll keep my gold.
Just stumbled upon this blog. I liked the comment about gold bugs being vaguely anti-capitalist.
I think what they miss is that money must be related to current production. Too much and prices go up, too little and prices go down (and the economy gets stifled). Therefore it is intrinsically related to labor.
When you have the ability to increase production but can’t increase gold, you get deflation, which characterized much of the U.S. economy between the Civil War and WWI. The pain during that period was the cause of the creation of the Federal Reserve.
Let me respond first with some clarifications that will extinguish some misunderstandings:
1 – no I do not believe in actually doing business in physical gold & silver, it would not be efficient. I simply believe that the government notes (or electronic entries) that we use should represent a promise to deliver x amount of gold.
2 – HouseApe, you say: “I think what they miss is that money must be related to current production. Too much and prices go up, too little and prices go down” and mike says “Isn’t the point of financial negotiation fluctuating prices and values? Wouldn’t price stability equal stagnation?”
This does not characterize me, nor many other advocates of a gold system. Stagnation is when we don’t have productivity gains or population gains or similar real growth. Stagnation is the lack of real GDP growth (or let’s say per capita GDP to be more precise). And therefore the value of gold relative to those things will be a fluctuating relationship. If I can produce this computer cheaper than I used to with the old techniques, than this computer deserve to sell for cheaper. And so if I produce this computer for you, you don’t have to give me as much gold as you used to. On the other hand, if a hurricane destroys half of the orange groves in the world, you now have to give me more gold (i.e . more U.S. dollars, because the dollar is pegged to gold) for every orange I deliver. So yes, there are fluctuations. I don’t see the problem here regarding the fluctuation issue.
The value of everything has 3 components, houses, tulips, silver, labour etc. The buffett/munger way of looking at stock market returns is: inflation + real GDP growth + dividends.
Expanding this to all assets, I re-write it as: inflation + real growth in the value of the item + cash flows that the item throws off.
What you talk about is the second element, the fluctuation in the value of what we use. I don’t think most gold bugs have a problem with that. Gold bugs have a problem with the first item: inflation. But inflation is not the only thing that affects prices, and therefore, even if we have a gold standards, the other two components will lead to fluctuations.
Dollar bugs, Dollar bugs, Dollar bugs, just keep accumulating those dollars. After all, we all know that they’re going to be worth more in the future. Since the existence of the Fed the Dollar has lost 95% of its purchasing power. What an amazing track record.
Oh, and for the record, they’re not really Dollars, they’re Federal Reserve Notes. In Ben Bernanke you trust, sheep, baa, baa, baa . . . .
Drink some more Fed cool aid Dollar bugs!
“When you have the ability to increase production but can’t increase gold, you get deflation, which characterized much of the U.S. economy between the Civil War and WWI. The pain during that period was the cause of the creation of the Federal Reserve.”
This is nonsense. The period between the Civil War and World War I saw the most brisk economic expansion in the country’s history and rising standards of living for all social classes.
If paper money is truly such a superior medium of exchange, would you agree to suspending legal tender laws to allow competing currencies to arise? (The U.S. government would still be welcome to demand Federal Reserve Notes in payment of taxes.)
Federal Reserve Notes are backed not by assets and labor but by debt, and in fact this is what makes our current monetary arrangements so pernicious: all money in the economy is created and offset by interest-bearing liabilities of the federal government, which promises to collect all of that money back (with interest) to repay the Fed. Either a truly sovereign paper money (which is an asset and not a debt to the people) or gold (also an asset … surely not even the most ardent anti-gold standard types would argue that point) would be superior to the current private bank cartel.
And by the way, if you thought the gold standard could create crippling deflation, you ain’t seen nothing yet. The totally unmoored credit growth of the past 30 years — impossible outside a fiat monetary system — has created the potential for a deflationary crash like nothing that was ever witnessed during the days of the Big Bad Gold Standard.
The period from 1870 to 1900 is often called “the great deflation:” it was marked by steadily declining prices. This deflation was a major reason for the Populist Party and the extremely violent labor strife of the era–the massive, paralyzing and violent strikes.
It’s also true that contrary to most instances of deflation, the period also saw robust economic growth. It’s anomalous in opposite way of the the 1970s, when there was high inflation but little economic growth. Both run contrary to “classical models.”
But few people alive in 1888 would have been praising the era as a golden age. If you lost the family farm to deflation 1888 the world of 2010 was small comfort.
It’s true the fed is a weird amalgam, neither fish nor fowl, and it does not serve ordinary people very well.
It’s not clear to me that the mortgage bond crisis had anything to do with paper money or that a gold standard would have prevented it. Speculative frenzies depend on expectations of increase, not paper. And again I’m not sure how the gold standard prevents risky lending: capitalism requires risky lending–lending and risk are at the core of the entire enterprise, and risk sometimes ends badly, and sometimes big risks end in big gains.
We surely might be teetering on the edge of the collapse of civilization, or we might not be. The rapture could be tonight, or maybe not.
There simply is not enough gold or silver to go around to have an economy based on the gold or silver standard. Sure fire way to make everybody worth about $500.
The problem is not with fiat money; the problem is that the issuance of it has been usurped by the private banks. The US treasury prints the Fed Reserve Notes, the Fed (a private banking cabal) pays the Treasury the cost of the printing and then turns around and charges us on the money we borrow from the Fed that we just printed for them.
Governments can print money and avoid debt, so why do governments borrow it and go into debt? That is the question we should all be asking.
If we could print our own money in our basement, would we go to a bank to borrow it when we need it? We can’t its called counterfeiting. But governments can do it.
Governments are supposed to print money. When they do, there is no reason to tax us to pay for money the government just borrowed from the banks. We get into problems when we turn that over to the banks. That is why there is debt.
And the Constitution Article 1 Section 10 allows for the minting of gold and silver by the states if the states desire. If the federal government won’t do it, the states clearly can. What the states can’t do is print paper money, which is forbidden under the same article.
So all you gold buggers, go to the states and get them to coin all the gold and silver you want to make yourselves feel warm and fuzzy.
I see that the usual suspects have arrived.
I don’t think you understand what ‘backed’ really means. Backed means that you can redeem the note for a quantity of a hard asset. How can I exchange my dollar for some quantity of a national park? What amount of military will I receive if I redeem a note? Not to mention that most money is created by debt issued by private banks, who profit off of this so-called ‘backing’ at our expense.
The real solution is free money, let us have multiple currencies backed by different hard assets. We have the technology to manage the exchanges between the currencies in real time. Tons of work has been done on how different currency ‘play’ rules affect their use. All we need is that people like the author to do some actual research on the topic at hand and move the debate in this direction.
[…] Although the Bible frowns on worshiping golden idols, gold’s fans often came very close. In 1874 New York Senator Jacob Cox claimed of gold: “preciousness, cohesiveness and divisibility belong to gold as to no other element,” and “God has hardened it in the millions of years in which the mountains come and go like the rainbow. It is as true as its burnished source, the sun.“2 God had made gold to be money. […]
“It’s not clear to me that the mortgage bond crisis had anything to do with paper money or that a gold standard would have prevented it. Speculative frenzies depend on expectations of increase, not paper.”
Any halfway coherent account of the causes of the financial crisis (which is really a debt crisis extending beyond mortgage bonds to all classes of credit, as we are seeing with European sovereign debt) has to include the Greenspan put as a major factor which encouraged investors to take outsized risks, secure in the knowledge that ample liquidity would always be thrown on the markets when needed most. Basically, the “risk sometimes ends badly” aspect of your formula was suspended by Greenspan and serial government bailouts in 1987, 1994, 1998, and 2000. In fact, this problem of the promise of endless liquidity and its encouragement of risk-taking was one of the chief arguments made by opponents of the establishment of the Bank of England and the U.S. Fed.
Central banking advocates seem to take it as a matter of course that CBs have reduced volatility in the markets and that this is obviously and inarguably a good thing. “Look at how many fewer panics we have now than during the nineteenth century,” right? But it is still an open question as to whether reducing this volatility is wise or even possible over the long run. Are we simply deferring risks into the future and piling up a series of mini-panics into one big crash? I don’t know … only a view of history from some point in the future, which can capture a full credit cycle (if our current one’s seemingly unstoppable growth ever does end) will tell.
“We surely might be teetering on the edge of the collapse of civilization, or we might not be. The rapture could be tonight, or maybe not.”
You are putting words in my mouth, and the mouths of a lot of other gold bugs (including e.g. Jim Grant, who has actually been quite bullish on the economy). Even a major deflation and depression would not be ‘the end of the world’ or anything that hasn’t already been seen in this country’s history. And if you agree with either Fisher/Minksy or Austrian models of the economy which argue that excessive credit and unsustainable debt are a cause of depressions, then our current record levels of indebtedness should raise at least some measure of concern, and some examination of how we got to this point, including whether our current monetary arrangements had anything to do with it.
My own enthusiasm for free money has nothing to do with a fetishization of gold and everything to do with skepticism about the ability of government planners to put exactly the right amount of money into the economy at all times. As Jim Grant puts it, “human beings are not competent to administer a system of fiat currencies backed by nothing.” Gold-backed money does have many weaknesses and problems. Like democracy, gold is the worst form of money, except all the others which have been tried.
David Mills suggests that gold bugs get the states to coin some competing currencies, but if the fate of the Liberty Dollar (which was not even promoted as “legal tender”) is any indication, these would be shut down by the feds in a hurry. All indications are that both the Fed and federal government understand the power their cartel gives them and will do whatever it takes to preserve it.
[…] web site The Aporetic explains why the Right is getting so gold buggy: People who like the idea of a gold standard like […]
Of course we would implement redeemable certificates. However, it was tried in the past and is subject to the following problems:
1) inability to expand currency in proportion to economic output.
2) speculative abuses, leading to fraud, etc.
I stated in an earlier comment that 2) requires the sort of regulations that are also required in a fiat system (audits, bank examiners, etc.). There is nothing in a gold standard that makes the political issues any easier to resolve.
Number 1) is also interesting. The gold bugs say that price deflation is a good thing (and from a consumption standpoint I get that), what they need to figure out is how to make lending and borrowing work in a deflationary environment that is also equitable.
You need a revolution in order to institute your gold revolution, otherwise we end up with way too much power in the hands of the “moneyed interests”.
And finally, it is counter-intuitive. If the economy is growing, if there are more people, productive capacity, goods and assets, then it seems only reasonable to require more money to represent the value of more stuff.
But with a fixed standard, that means that the unit of account (the dollar) must either be in constant depreciation with respect to the standard, or that the standard will be an impediment to economic growth. Which is, in a nutshell, the history of US money from post-Civil War to WWI.
There is nothing magical about gold except the relative stability of its physical supply. If gold could be created easily, or if it were destroyed during consumption, then the fluctuations in the supply of the standard combined with the fluctuations in the real economy would render it completely unworkable.
The idea that there is some external object that will keep us from having to address the political problems that have plagued all monetary systems is a fantasy.
Exactly right, pebird. The gold standard is the “external object” that will magically remove politics from money. It’s absurd. I’ve got another post on the subject set for next week
If all new money were backed by gold, would the US government still rent that money from off-shore bankers?
I wonder why the US government refuses to issue it’s own currency instead of needlessly going into debt to a group of foreign nationals…
Maybe those international bankers are the real puppet masters?
How will we know whether the money we rent from them has gold behind it?
[…] The Gold Standard of Lunacy The Aporetic (hat tip reader Stephen M) […]
[…] notice about libertarians is their fondness for the idea of imminent collapse. “Fiat money” is always about to crumble, and bring down civilization with it. Often this is invoked in a kind of taunting way: just wait and see what your paper money buys […]
You got great points there, that’s why I always love checking out your blog.
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