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