Archive for December, 2015

The Free Market Economy Is Awesome and Fragile

Scott Sumner’s three most recent posts (here, here, and here)have been really great, and I’ld like to comment on all of them. I will start with a comment on his post discussing whether the free market economy is stable; perhaps I will get around to the other two next week. Scott uses a 2009 paper by Robert Hetzel as the starting point for his discussion. Hetzel distinguishes between those who view the stabilizing properties of price adjustment as being overwhelmed by real instabilities reflecting fluctuations in consumer and entrepreneurial sentiment – waves of optimism and pessimism – and those who regard the economy as either perpetually in equilibrium (RBC theorists) or just usually in equilibrium (Monetarists) unless destabilized by monetary shocks. Scott classifies himself, along with Hetzel and Milton Friedman, in the latter category.

Scott then brings Paul Krugman into the mix:

Friedman, Hetzel, and I all share the view that the private economy is basically stable, unless disturbed by monetary shocks. Paul Krugman has criticized this view, and indeed accused Friedman of intellectual dishonesty, for claiming that the Fed caused the Great Depression. In Krugman’s view, the account in Friedman and Schwartz’s Monetary History suggests that the Depression was caused by an unstable private economy, which the Fed failed to rescue because of insufficiently interventionist monetary policies. He thinks Friedman was subtly distorting the message to make his broader libertarian ideology seem more appealing.

This is a tricky topic for me to handle, because my own view of what happened in the Great Depression is in one sense similar to Friedman’s – monetary policy, not some spontaneous collapse of the private economy, was what precipitated and prolonged the Great Depression – but Friedman had a partial, simplistic and distorted view of how and why monetary policy failed. And although I believe Friedman was correct to argue that the Great Depression did not prove that the free market economy is inherently unstable and requires comprehensive government intervention to keep it from collapsing, I think that his account of the Great Depression was to some extent informed by his belief that his own simple k-percent rule for monetary growth was a golden bullet that would ensure economic stability and high employment.

I’d like to first ask a basic question: Is this a distinction without a meaningful difference? There are actually two issues here. First, does the Fed always have the ability to stabilize the economy, or does the zero bound sometimes render their policies impotent?  In that case the two views clearly do differ. But the more interesting philosophical question occurs when not at the zero bound, which has been the case for all but one postwar recession. In that case, does it make more sense to say the Fed caused a recession, or failed to prevent it?

Here’s an analogy. Someone might claim that LeBron James is a very weak and frail life form, whose legs will cramp up during basketball games without frequent consumption of fluids. Another might suggest that James is a healthy and powerful athlete, who needs to drink plenty of fluids to perform at his best during basketball games. In a sense, both are describing the same underlying reality, albeit with very different framing techniques. Nonetheless, I think the second description is better. It is a more informative description of LeBron James’s physical condition, relative to average people.

By analogy, I believe the private economy in the US is far more likely to be stable with decent monetary policy than is the economy of Venezuela (which can fall into depression even with sufficiently expansionary monetary policy, or indeed overly expansionary policies.)

I like Scott’s LeBron James analogy, but I have two problems with it. First, although LeBron James is a great player, he’s not perfect. Sometimes, even he messes up. When he messes up, it may not be his fault, in the sense that, with better information or better foresight – say, a little more rest in the second quarter – he might have sunk the game-winning three-pointer at the buzzer. Second, it’s one thing to say that a monetary shock caused the Great Depression, but maybe we just don’t know how to avoid monetary shocks. LeBron can miss shots, so can the Fed. Milton Friedman certainly didn’t know how to avoid monetary shocks, because his pet k-percent rule, as F. A. Hayek shrewdly observed, was a simply a monetary shock waiting to happen. And John Taylor certainly doesn’t know how to avoid monetary shocks, because his pet rule would have caused the Fed to raise interest rates in 2011 with possibly devastating consequences. I agree that a nominal GDP level target would have resulted in a monetary policy superior to the policy the Fed has been conducting since 2008, but do I really know that? I am not sure that I do. The false promise held out by Friedman was that it is easy to get monetary policy right all the time. It certainly wasn’t the case for Friedman’s pet rule, and I don’t think that there is any monetary rule out there that we can be sure will keep us safe and secure and fully employed.

But going beyond the LeBron analogy, I would make a further point. We just have no theoretical basis for saying that the free-market economy is stable. We can prove that, under some assumptions – and it is, to say the least, debatable whether the assumptions could properly be described as reasonable – a model economy corresponding to the basic neoclassical paradigm can be solved for an equilibrium solution. The existence of an equilibrium solution means basically that the neoclassical model is logically coherent, not that it tells us much about how any actual economy works. The pieces of the puzzle could all be put together in a way so that everything fits, but that doesn’t mean that in practice there is any mechanism whereby that equilibrium is ever reached or even approximated.

The argument for the stability of the free market that we learn in our first course in economics, which shows us how price adjusts to balance supply and demand, is an argument that, when every market but one – well, actually two, but we don’t have to quibble about it – is already in equilibrium, price adjustment in the remaining market – if it is small relative to the rest of the economy – will bring that market into equilibrium as well. That’s what I mean when I refer to the macrofoundations of microeconomics. But when many markets are out of equilibrium, even the markets that seem to be equilibrium (with amounts supplied and demanded equal) are not necessarily in equilibrium, because the price adjustments in other markets will disturb the seeming equilibrium of the markets in which supply and demand are momentarily equal. So there is not necessarily any algorithm, either in theory or in practice, by which price adjustments in individual markets would ever lead the economy into a state of general equilibrium. If we believe that the free market economy is stable, our belief is therefore not derived from any theoretical proof of the stability of the free market economy, but simply on an intuition, and some sort of historical assessment that free markets tend to work well most of the time. I would just add that, in his seminal 1937 paper, “Economics and Knowledge,” F. A. Hayek actually made just that observation, though it is not an observation that he, or most of his followers – with the notable and telling exceptions of G. L. S. Shackle and Ludwig Lachmann – made a big fuss about.

Axel Leijonhufvud, who is certainly an admirer of Hayek, addresses the question of the stability of the free-market economy in terms of what he calls a corridor. If you think of an economy moving along a time path, and if you think of the time path that would be followed by the economy if it were operating at a full-employment equilibrium, Leijonjhufvud’s corridor hypothesis is that the actual time path of the economy tends to revert to the equilibrium time path as long as deviations from the equilibrium are kept within certain limits, those limits defining the corridor. However, if the economy, for whatever reasons (exogenous shocks or some other mishaps) leaves the corridor, the spontaneous equilibrating tendencies causing the actual time path to revert back to the equilibrium time path may break down, and there may be no further tendency for the economy to revert back to its equilibrium time path. And as I pointed out recently in my post on Earl Thompson’s “Reformulation of Macroeconomic Theory,” he was able to construct a purely neoclassical model with two potential equilibria, one of which was unstable so that a shock form the lower equilibrium would lead either to a reversion to the higher-level equilibrium or to downward spiral with no endogenous stopping point.

Having said all that, I still agree with Scott’s bottom line: if the economy is operating below full employment, and inflation and interest rates are low, there is very likely a problem with monetary policy.

Keynes on the Theory of the Rate of Interest

I have been writing recently about Keynes and his theory of the rate of interest (here, here, here, and here). Perhaps unjustly – but perhaps not — I attribute to him a theory in which the rate of interest is determined exclusively by monetary forces: the interaction of the liquidity preference of the public with the policy of the monetary authorities. In other words, the rate of interest, at least as an approximation, can be modeled in terms of a single market for holding money, the demand to hold money reflecting the liquidity preference of the public and the stock of money being directly controlled by the monetary authority. Because liquidity preference is a function of the rate of interest, the rate of interest adjusts until the stock of money made available by the monetary authority is held willingly by the public.

I have been struggling with Keynes’s liquidity preference theory of interest, which evidently led him to deny the Fisher effect, thus denying that there is a margin of substitution between holding money and holding real assets, because he explicitly recognizes in Chapter 17 of the General Theory that there is a margin of substitution between money and real assets, the expected net returns from holding all assets (including expected appreciation and the net service flows generated by the assets) being equal in equilibrium. And it was that logic which led Keynes to one of his most important pre-General Theory contributions — the covered-interest-arbitrage theorem in chapter 3 of his Tract on Monetary Reform. The equality of expected returns on all assets was the key to Irving Fisher’s 1896 derivation of the Fisher Effect in Appreciation and Interest, restated in 1907 in The Rate of Interest, and in 1930 in The Theory of Interest.

Fisher never asserted that there is complete adjustment of nominal interest rates to expected inflation, actually providing empirical evidence that the adjustment of nominal rates to inflation was only partial, but he did show that in equilibrium a difference in the expected rate of appreciation between alternative assets must correspond to differences in the rates of interest on loans contracted in terms of the two assets. Now there is a difference between the static relationship between the interest rates for two loans contracted in terms of two different assets and a dynamic adjustment in time to a change in the expected rate of appreciation or depreciation of a given asset. The dynamic adjustment does not necessarily coincide with the static relationship.

It is also interesting, as I pointed out in a recent post, that when criticizing the orthodox theory of the rate of interest in the General Theory, Keynes focused not on Fisher, but on his teacher Alfred Marshall as the authoritative representative of the orthodox theory of interest, criticizing Fisher only for the Fisher effect. Keynes reserved is comprehensive criticism for Marshall, attributing to Marshall the notion that rate of interest adjusts to equalize savings and investment. Keynes acknowledged that he could not find textual support in Marshall’s writings for this idea, merely citing his own prior belief that the rate of interest performs that function, consequently attributing a similar belief to Marshall. But even if Marshall did mistakenly believe that the rate of interest adjusts to equalize savings and investment, it does not follow that the orthodox theory of interest is wrong; it just means that Marshall had a defective understanding of the theory. Just because most physicists in the 18th century believed in the phlogiston theory of fire does not prove that classical physics was wrong; it only means that classical physicists had an imperfect understanding of the theory. And if Keynes wanted to establish the content of the most authoritative version of the orthodox theory of interest, he should have been citing Fisher not Marshall.

That is why I wanted to have a look at a not very well known paper by Keynes called “The Theory of the Rate of Interest,” written for a 1937 festschrift in honor of Irving Fisher, The Lessons of Monetary Experience. Keynes began the paper with the following footnote attached to the title acknowledging Fisher as the outstanding authority on the orthodox theory of interest.

I have thought it suitable to offer a short note on this subject in honor of Irving Fisher, since his earliest [presumably Appreciation and Interest, Fisher’s doctoral dissertation] and latest [presumably The Theory of Interest] have been concerned with it, and since during the whole of the thirty years that I have been studying economics he has been the outstanding authority on this problem. (p. 145)

The paper is mostly devoted to spelling out and discussing six propositions that Keynes believes distill the essentials of the orthodox theory of interest. The first four of these propositions Keynes regards as unassailable, but the last two, he maintains, reflect very special, empirically false, assumptions. He therefore replaces them with two substitute propositions, whose implications differ radically from those of orthodox theory. Here are the first four propositions.

1 Interest on money means precisely what the books on arithmetic say it means. . . . [I]t is simply the premium obtainable on current cash over deferred cash, so that it measures the marginal preference . . . for holding cash in hand over cash for deferred delivery. No one would pay this premium unless the possession of cash served some purpose, i.e., has some efficiency. Thus, we can conveniently say that interest on money measures the marginal efficiency of money in terms of itself as a unit.

2 Money is not peculiar in having a marginal efficiency measured in terms of itself. . . . [N]ormally capital assets of all kinds have a positive marginal efficiency measured in terms of themselves. If we know the relation between the present and expected prices of an asset in terms of money we can convert the measure of its marginal efficiency into a measure of its marginal efficiency in terms of money by means of a formula which I have given in my General Theory, p. 227.

3 The effort to obtain the best advantage from the possession of wealth will set up a tendency for capital assets to exchange in equilibrium, at values proportional to their marginal efficiencies in terms of a common unit. . . . [I]f r is the money rate of interest . . . and y is the marginal efficiency of a capital asset A in terms of money, then A will exchange in terms of money at a price such as to make y = r.

4 If the demand price of our capital asset A . . . is not less than its replacement cost, new investment in A will take place, the scale of such investment depending on the capacity available for the production of A, i.e., on its elasticity of supply, and on the rate at which y, its marginal efficiency, declines as the amount of new investment in A increases. At a scale of new investment at which the marginal cost of producing A is equal to its demand price as above, we have a position of equilibrium. Thus the price system resulting from the relationships between the marginal efficiencies of different capital assets including money, measured in terms of a common unit, determines the aggregate rate of investment. (p. 145-46)

Keynes sums up the import of his first four propositions as follows:

These proposition are not . . . inconsistent with the orthodox theory . . . or open to doubt. They establish that relative prices . . . and the scale of output move until the marginal efficiencies of all kinds of assets are equal when measured in a common unit and . . . that the marginal efficiency of capital is equal to the rate of interest. But they tell us nothing as to the forces which determine what this common level of marginal efficiency will tend to be. It is when we proceed to this further discussion that my argument diverges from the orthodox argument.

Here is how Keynes describes the divergence between the orthodox theory and his theory:

[T]he orthodox theory maintains that the forces which determine the common value of the marginal efficiency of various assets are independent of money, which has . . . no autonomous influence, and that prices move until the marginal efficiency of money, i.e., the rate of interest, falls into line with the common value of the marginal efficiency of other assets as determined by other forces. My theory . . . maintains that this is a special case and that over a wide range of possible cases almost the opposite is true, namely, that the marginal efficiency of money is determined by forces partly appropriate to itself, and that prices move until the marginal efficiency of other assets fall into line with the rate of interest. (p. 147)

I find Keynes’s description of the difference between the orthodox theory and his own both insightful and problematic. Keynes notes correctly that the orthodox theory, abstracting from all monetary influences, treats the rate of interest as a rate of intertemporal exchange, applicable to exchange between any asset today and any asset in the future, adjusted for differences in rates of appreciation, and in net service flows, across assets. So Keynes was right: the orthodox theory is a special case, corresponding to the special assumptions required for full intertemporal equilibrium. And Keynes was right to emphasize the limitations of the orthodox theory.

But while drawing a sharp contrast between his theory and the orthodox theory (“over a wide range of possible cases almost the opposite is true”), Keynes, to qualify his disagreement, deploys the italicized (by me) weasel words, but without explaining how his seemingly flat rejection of the orthodox theory requires qualification. It is certainly reasonable to say “that the marginal efficiency of capital is determined by forces partly appropriate to itself.” But I don’t see how it follows from that premise “that prices move until the marginal efficiency of other assets fall into line with the rate of interest.” Equilibrium is reached when marginal efficiencies (adjusted for differences in expected rates of appreciation and in net services flows) of all assets are equal, but rejecting the orthodox notion that the marginal efficiency of money adjusts to the common marginal efficiency of all other assets does not establish that the causality is reversed: that the marginal efficiencies of all non-money assets must adjust to whatever the marginal efficiency of money happens to be. The reverse causality also seems like a special case; the general case, it would seem, would be one in which causality could operate, depending on circumstances, in either direction or both directions. An argument about the direction of causality would have been appropriate, but none is made. Keynes just moves on to propositions 5 and 6.

5 The marginal efficiency of money in terms of itself has the peculiarity that it is independent of its quantity. . . . This is a consequence of the Quantity Theory of Money . . . Thus, unless we import considerations from outside, the money rate of interest is indeterminate, for the demand schedule for money is a function solely of its supply [sic, presumably Keynes meant to say “quantity”]. Nevertheless, a determinate value for r can be derived from the condition that the value of an asset A, of which the marginal efficiency in terms of money is y, must be such that y = r. For provided that we know the scale of investment, we know y and the value of A, and hence we can deduce r. In other words, the rate of interest depends on the marginal efficiency of capital assets other than money. This must, however, be supplemented by another proposition; for it requires that we should already know the scale of investment. (p. 147-48)

I pause here, because I am confused. Keynes alludes to the proposition that the neutrality of money implies that any nominal interest rate is compatible with any real interest rate provided that the rate of inflation is correctly anticipated, though without articulating the proposition correctly. Despite getting off to a shaky start with a sloppy allusion to the Fisher effect, Keynes is right in observing that the neutrality of money and the independence of the real rate of interest from monetary factors are extreme assumptions. Given that monetary neutrality is consistent with any nominal interest rate, Keynes then tries to show how the orthodox theory pins down the nominal interest rate. And his attempt does not seem successful; he asserts that the money rate of interest can be deduced from the marginal efficiency of some capital asset A in terms of money. But that marginal efficiency cannot be deduced without knowledge, or an expectation, of the future value of the asset. Instead of couching his analysis in terms of the current and (expected) future values of the asset, i.e., instead of following Fisher’s 1896 own-rate analysis, Keynes brings up the scale of investment in A: “This must . . . be supplemented by another proposition; for it requires that we should already know the scale of investment.” Aside from not knowing what “this” and “it” are referring to, I don’t understand how the scale of investment is relevant to a determination of the marginal efficiency of the capital asset in question.

Now for Keynes’s final proposition:

6 The scale of investment will not reach its equilibrium level until the point is reached at which the elasticity of supply of output as a whole has fallen to zero. (p. 148)

The puzzle only deepens here because proposition 5 is referring to the scale of investment in a particular asset A while proposition 6 seems to be referring to the scale of investment in the aggregate. It is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for an equilibrium scale of investment in a particular capital asset to obtain that the elasticity of supply of output as a whole be zero. So the connection between propositions 5 and 6 seems tenuous and superficial. Does Keynes mean to say that, according to orthodox theory, the equality of advantage to asset holders between different kinds of assets cannot be achieved unless the elasticity of supply for output as a whole is zero? Keynes then offers a synthetic restatement of orthodox theory.

The equilibrium rate of aggregate investment, corresponding to the level of output for a further increase in which the elasticity of supply is zero, depends on the readiness of the public to save. But this in turn depends on the rate of interest. Thus for each level of the rate of interest we have a given quantity of saving. This quantity of saving determines the scale of investment. The scale of investment settles the marginal efficiency of capital, to which the rate of interest must be equal. Our system is therefore determinate. To each possible value of the rate of interest there corresponds a given volume of saving; and to each possible value of the marginal efficiency of capital there corresponds a given volume of investment. Now the rate of interest and the marginal efficiency of capital must be equal. Thus the position of equilibrium is given by that common value of the rate of interest and of the marginal efficiency of capital at which saving determined by the former is equal to the investment determined by the latter. (Id.)

This restatement of orthodox theory is remarkably disconnected from the six propositions that Keynes has just identified as the bedrock of the orthodox theory of interest. The word “saving” or “save” is not even mentioned in any of Keynes’s six propositions, so the notion that the orthodox theory asserts that the rate of interest adjusts to equalize saving and investment is inconsistent with his own rendering of the orthodox theory. The rhetorical point that Keynes seems to be making in the form of a strictly analytical discussion is that the orthodox theory held that the equilibrium of an economic system occurs at the rate of interest that equalizes savings and investment at a level of output and income consistent with full employment. Where Keynes was misguided was in characterizing the mechanism by which this equilibrium is reached as an adjustment in the nominal rate of interest. A full equilibrium is achieved by way of a vector of prices (and expected prices) consistent with equilibrium, the rate of interest being implicit in the intertemporal structure of a price vector. Keynes was working with a simplistic misconception of what the rate of interest actually represents and how it affects economic activity.

In place of propositions 5 and 6, which Keynes dismisses as special factual assumptions, he proposes two alternative propositions:

5* The marginal efficiency of money in terms of itself is . . . a function of its quantity (though not of its quantity alone), just as in the case of capital assets.

6* Aggregate investment may reach its equilibrium rate under proposition (4) above, before the elasticity of supply of output as a whole has fallen to zero. (Id.)

So in substituting 5* for 5, all Keynes did was discard a proposition that few if any economists — certainly not Fisher — upholding the orthodox theory ever would have accepted as a factual assertion. The two paragraphs that Keynes devotes to refuting proposition 5 can be safely ignored at almost zero cost. Turning to proposition 6, Keynes restates it as follows:

A zero elasticity of supply for output as a whole means that an increase of demand in terms of money will lead to no change in output; that is to say, prices will rise in the same proportion as the money demand [i.e., nominal aggregate demand, not the demand to hold money] rises. Inflation will have no effect on output or employment, but only on prices. (pp. 149-50)

So, propositions 5 and 6 turn out to be equivalent assertions that money is neutral. Having devoted two separate propositions to identify the orthodox theory of interest with the idea that money is neutral, Keynes spells out the lessons he draws from his reconstruction of the orthodox theory of the rate of interest.

If I am right, the orthodox theory is wholly inapplicable to such problems as those of unemployment and the trade cycle, or, indeed, to any of the day-to-day problems of ordinary life. Nevertheless it is often in fact applied to such problems. . . .

It leads to considerable difficulties to regard the marginal efficiency of money as wholly different in character from the marginal efficiency of other assets. Equilibrium requires . . . that the prices of different kinds of assets measured in the same unit move until their marginal efficiencies measured in that unit are equal. But if the marginal efficiency of money in terms of itself is always equal to the marginal efficiency of other assets, irrespective of the price of the latter, the whole price system in terms of money becomes indeterminate. (150-52)

Keynes is attacking a strawman here, because, even given the extreme assumptions about the neutrality of money that hardly anyone – and certainly not Fisher – accepted as factual, the equality between the marginal efficiency of money and the marginal efficiency of other assets is an equilibrium condition, not an identity, so the charge of indeterminacy is mistaken, as Keynes himself unwittingly acknowledges thereafter.

It is the elements of elasticity (a) in the desire to hold inactive balances and (b) in the supply of output as a whole, which permits a reasonable measure of stability in prices. If these elasticities are zero there is a necessity for the whole body of prices and wages to respond immediately to every change in the quantity of money. (p. 152)

So Keynes is acknowledging that the whole price system in terms of money in not indeterminate, just excessively volatile. But let’s hear him out.

This assumes a state of affairs very different from that in which we live. For the two elasticities named above are highly characteristic of the real world; and the assumption that both of them are zero assumes away three-quarters of the problems in which we are interested. (Id.)

Undoubtedly true, but neither Fisher nor most other economists who accepted the orthodox theory of the rate of interest believed either that money is always neutral or that we live in a world of perpetually full employment. Nor did Keynes show that the theoretical resources of orthodox theory were insufficient to analyze situations of less than full employment. The most obvious example of such an analysis, of course, is one in which a restrictive monetary policy, by creating an excess demand for money, raises the liquidity premium, causing the marginal efficiency of money to exceed the marginal efficiency of other assets, in which case asset prices must fall to restore the equality between the marginal efficiencies of assets and of money.

In principle, the adjustment might be relatively smooth, but if the fall of asset prices triggers bankruptcies or other forms of financial distress, and if the increase in interest rates affects spending flows, the fall in asset prices and in spending flows may become cumulative causing a general downward spiral in income and output. Such an analysis is entirely compatible with orthodox theory even if the orthodox theory, in its emphasis on equilibrium, seems very far removed from the messy dynamic adjustment associated with a sudden increase in liquidity preference.

Eric Rauchway on the Gold Standard

Commenter TravisV recently flagged for me a New York Times review of a new book by Eric Rauchway, Professor of History at the University of California at Davis. The book is called Money Makers: How Roosevelt and Keynes Ended the Depression, Defeated Fascism, and Secured a Prosperous Peace, a history of how FDR, with a bit of encouragement, but no real policy input, from J. M. Keynes, started a recovery from the Great Depression in 1933 by taking the US off the gold standard and devaluing the dollar, and later, with major input from Keynes, was instrumental in creating the post-World War II monetary system which was the result of the historic meeting at Bretton Woods, New Hampshire in 1944.

I had only just learned of Rauchway a week or so before the Times reviewed his book when I read his op-ed piece in the New York Times (“Why Republicans Still Love the Gold Standard” 11/13/15), warning about the curious (and ominous) infatuation that many Republican candidates for President seem to have with the gold standard, an infatuation forthrightly expressed by Ted Cruz in a recent debate among the Republican candidates for President. Rauchway wrote:

In Tuesday’s Republican presidential debate, Senator Ted Cruz reintroduced an idea that had many viewers scratching their heads and nearly all economists pulling out their hair. Mr. Cruz advocated a return to the gold standard — that is, tying the value of a dollar to a set amount of gold — because, he said, it produced prosperity under the Bretton Woods system and it helped “workingmen and -women.”

Mr. Cruz is confused about history and economics. The framers of Bretton Woods specifically designed their new international monetary system not to be a gold standard because they believed gold-based currency was largely responsible for the Great Depression. Their system, named for the New Hampshire town hosting the 1944 international conference that created it, was not a gold standard but “the exact opposite,” according to John Maynard Keynes, one of the system’s principal designers. Under Bretton Woods, nations were not obliged to set monetary policy according to how much gold they had, but rather according to their economic needs.

I thought that Rauchway made an excellent point in distinguishing between the actual gold standard and the Bretton Wood monetary system, in which the price of gold was nominally fixed at $35 dollars an ounce. But Bretton Woods system was very far from being a true gold standard, because the existence of a gold standard is predicated on the existence of a free market in gold, so that gold can be freely bought and sold by anyone at the official price. Under Bretton Woods, however, the market was tightly controlled, and US citizens could not legally own gold, except for industrial or commercial purposes, while the international gold market was under the strict control of the international monetary authorities. The only purchasers to whom the Fed was obligated to sell gold at the official price were other central banks, and it was understood that any request to purchase gold from the US monetary authority beyond what the US government thought appropriate would be considered a hostile act. The only foreign government willing to make such requests was the French government under de Gaulle, who took obvious pleasure in provoking the Anglo-Saxons whenever possible.

If Senator Cruz were a little older, or a little better read, or a little more scrupulous in his historical pronouncements, he might have been deterred from identifying the Bretton Woods system with the gold standard, because in the 1950s and 1960s right-wing supporters of the gold standard – I mean people like Ludwig von Mises and Henry Hazlitt — regarded the Bretton Woods as a dreadful engine of inflation, regarding the Bretton Woods system as a sham, embodying only the form, but not the substance, of the gold standard. It was only in the late 1970s that right-wingers began making nostalgic references to Bretton Woods, the very system that they had spent the previous 25 or 30 years denouncing as an abhorrent scheme for currency debasement.

But I stopped nodding my head in agreement with Rauchway when I reached the fifth paragraph of his piece.

Under a gold standard, the amount of gold a nation holds in bank vaults determines how much of its money circulates. If a nation’s gold stock increases through trade, for example, the country issues more currency. Likewise, if its gold stock decreases, it issues less.

Oh dear! Rauchway, like so many others, gets the gold standard all wrong, even though he started off correctly by saying that the gold standard ties “the value of a dollar to a set amount of gold.”

Here’s the point. Given a demand for some product, say, apples, if you can set the quantity of apples, while allowing everyone to trade that fixed amount freely, the equilibrium price for applies will be the price at which the amount demanded exactly matches the fixed quantity available to the market. Alternatively, if you set the price of apples, and can supply exactly as many apples as are demanded, the equilibrium quantity will be whatever quantity is demanded at the fixed price.

The gold standard operates by fixing the price of currency at a certain value in terms of gold (or stated equivalently, defining the currency unit as representing a fixed quantity of gold). The amount of currency under a gold standard is therefore whatever quantity of currency is demanded at the fixed price. That is very different from saying that a gold standard operates by placing a limit on the amount of currency that can be created. It is, to be sure, possible to place a limit on the quantity of currency by imposing a legal gold-reserve requirement on currency issued. But even then, it’s not the amount of reserves that limits the amount of currency; it’s the amount of currency that determines how much gold is held in reserve. Such requirements have existed under a gold standard, but those requirements do not define a gold standard, which is the legal equivalence established between currency and a corresponding amount of gold. A gold-reserve requirement is rather a condition imposed upon the gold standard, not the gold standard itself. Whether reserve requirements are good or bad, wise or unwise, is debatable. But it is a category mistake to confuse the defining characteristic of the gold standard with a separate condition imposed upon the gold standard.

I thought about responding to Rauchway’s erroneous characterization of the gold standard after seeing his op-ed piece, but it didn’t seem quite important enough to make the correction until TravisV pointed me to the review of his new book, which is largely about the gold standard. But then I thought that perhaps Rauchway had just expressed himself sloppily in the Times op-ed, mistakenly trying to convey a somewhat complicated and unfamiliar idea in more easily understood terms. So, without a copy of his book handy, I did a little on-line research, looking up some of the recent – and mostly favorable — reviews of the book. And, to my dismy, I found the following statement in a review in the Economist:

More important, says Mr Rauchway, in 1933 he [FDR] took America off the gold standard, a system whereby the amount of dollars in circulation was determined by the country’s gold reserves.

I am assuming that the reviewer for the Economist did not make this up on his own and is accurately conveying Mr. Rauchway’s understanding of how the gold standard operated. But just to be sure, I checked a few other online reviews, and I found this one by the indefatigable John Tamny in Real Clear Markets. Tamny is listed as editor of Real Clear Markets, which makes sense, because I can’t understand how else his seemingly interminable review of over 4200 words could have gotten published. Luckily for me, I didn’t have to go through the entire review before finding the following comment:

Rauchway lauds FDR for leaving a gold standard that in Rauchway’s words limited money creation to a ratio informed by the “amount of shiny yellow metal a nation had on hand,” but the problem here is that Rauchway’s analysis is spectacularly untrue. As monetary expert Nathan Lewis explained it recently about the U.S. gold standard,

A gold standard system is not, and has never been, a system that “fixes the supply of money to the supply of gold.” Absolutely not. A gold standard system is what I call a fixed-value system. The value of the currency – not the quantity – is linked to gold, for example at 23.2 troy grains of gold per dollar ($20.67/ounce).

It’s too bad that Rauchway had to be corrected by John Tamny and Nathan Lewis, but it is what it is. And don’t forget, even F. A. Hayek and Milton Friedman couldn’t figure out how the gold standard worked. But still, despite its theoretical shortcomings, it seems more than likely that Rauchway’s book is worth reading.

PS Further discussion of GOP nostalgia for the gold standard in today’s New York Times

About Me

David Glasner
Washington, DC

I am an economist in the Washington DC area. My research and writing has been mostly on monetary economics and policy and the history of economics. In my book Free Banking and Monetary Reform, I argued for a non-Monetarist non-Keynesian approach to monetary policy, based on a theory of a competitive supply of money. Over the years, I have become increasingly impressed by the similarities between my approach and that of R. G. Hawtrey and hope to bring Hawtrey's unduly neglected contributions to the attention of a wider audience.

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 1,299 other followers

Follow Uneasy Money on