Archive for February, 2018

Milton Friedman’s Rabble-Rousing Case for Abolishing the Fed

I recently came across this excerpt from a longer interview of Milton Friedman conducted by Brian Lamb on Cspan in 1994. In this excerpt Lamb asks Friedman what he thinks of the Fed, and Friedman, barely able to contain his ideological fervor, quickly rattles off his version of the history of the Fed, blaming the Fed, at least by implication, for all the bad monetary and macroeconomic events that happened between 1914, when the Fed came into existence, and the1970s.

Here’s a rough summary of Friedman’s tirade:

I have long been in favor of abolishing [the Fed]. There is no institution in the United States that has such a high public standing and such a poor record of performance. . . . The Federal Reserve began operations in 1914 and presided over a doubling of prices during World War I. It produced a major collapse in 1921. It had a good period from about 1922 to 1928. It took actions in 1928 and 1929 that led to a major recession in 1929 and 1930, and it converted that recession by its actions into the Great Depression. The major villain in the Great Depression in my opinion was unquestionably the Federal Reserve System. Since that time, it presided over a doubling of price in World War II. It financed the inflation of the 1970s. On the whole it has a very poor record. It’s done far more harm than good.

Let’s go through Friedman’s complaints one at a time.

World War I inflation.

Friedman blames World War I inflation on the Fed. Friedman, as I have shown in many previous posts, had a very shaky understanding of how the gold standard worked. His remark about the Fed’s “presiding over a doubling of prices” during World War I is likely yet another example of Friedman’s incomprehension, though his use of the weasel words “presided over” rather than the straightforward “caused” does suggest that Friedman was merely trying to insinuate that the Fed was blameworthy when he actually understood that the Fed had almost no control over inflation in World War I, the US remaining formally on the gold standard until April 6, 1917, when the US declared war on Germany and entered World War I, formally suspending the convertibility of the dollar into gold.

As long as the US remained on a gold standard, the value of the dollar was determined by the value of gold. The US was importing lots of gold during the first two and a half years of the World War I as the belligerents used their gold reserves and demonetized their gold coins to finance imports of war material from the US. The massive demonetization of gold caused gold to depreciate on world markets. Another neutral country, Sweden, actually left the gold standard during World War I to avoid the inevitable inflation associated with the wartime depreciation of gold. So it was either ignorant or disingenuous for Friedman to attribute the World War I inflation to the actions of the Federal Reserve. No country could have remained on the gold standard during World War I without accepting inflation, and the Federal Reserve had no legal authority to abrogate or suspend the legal convertibility of the dollar into a fixed weight of gold.

The Post-War Collapse of 1921

Friedman correctly blames the 1921 collapse to the Fed. However, after a rapid wartime and postwar inflation, the US was trying to recreate a gold standard while holding 40% of the world’s gold reserves. The Fed therefore took steps to stabilize the value of gold, which meant raising interest rates, thereby inducing a further inflow of gold into the US to stop the real value of gold from falling in international markets. The problem was that the Fed went overboard, causing a really, and probably unnecessarily, steep deflation.

The Great Depression

Friedman is right that the Fed helped cause the Great Depression by its actions in 1928 and 1929, raising interest rates to try to quell rapidly rising stock prices. But the concerns about rising stock-market prices were probably misplaced, and the Fed’s raising of interest rates caused an inflow of gold into the US just when a gold outflow from the US was needed to accommodate the rising demand for gold on the part of the Bank of France and other central banks rejoining the gold standard and accumulating gold reserves. It was the sudden tightening of the world gold market, with the US and France and other countries rejoining the gold standard simultaneously trying to increase their gold holdings, that caused the value of gold to rise (and nominal prices to fall) in 1929 starting the Great Depression. Friedman totally ignored the international context in which the Fed was operating, failing to see that the US price level under the newly established gold standard, being determined by the international value of gold, was beyond the control of the Fed.

World War II Inflation

As with World War I, Friedman blamed the Fed for “presiding over” a doubling of prices in World War II. But unlike World War I, when rising US prices reflected a falling real value of gold caused by events outside the US and beyond the control of the Fed, in World War II rising US prices reflected the falling value of an inconvertible US dollar caused by Fed “money printing” at the behest of the President and the Treasury. But why did Friedman consider Fed money printing in World War II to have been a blameworthy act on the part of the Fed? The US was then engaged in a total war against the Axis powers. Under those circumstances, was the primary duty of the Fed to keep prices stable or to use its control over “printing press” to ensure that the US government had sufficient funds to win the war against Nazi totalitarianism and allied fascist forces, thereby preserving American liberties and values even more fundamental than keeping inflation low and enabling creditors to extract what was owed to them by their debtors in dollars of undiminished real purchasing power.

Now it’s true that many of Friedman’s libertarian allies were appalled by US participation in World War II, but Friedman, to his credit, did not share their disapproval of US participation in World War II. But, given his support for World War II, Friedman should have at least acknowledged the obvious role of inflationary finance in emergency war financing, a role which, as Earl Thompson and I and others have argued, rationalizes the historic legal monopoly on money printing maintained by almost all sovereign states. To condemn the Fed for inflationary policies during World War II without recognizing the critical role of the “printing press” in war finance was a remarkably uninformed and biased judgment on Friedman’s part.

1970s Inflation

The Fed certainly had a major role in inflation during the 1970s, which as early as 1966 was already starting to creep up from 1-2% rates that had prevailed from 1953 to 1965. The rise in inflation was again triggered by war-related expenditures, owing to the growing combat role of the US in Vietnam starting in 1965. The Fed’s role in rising inflation in the late 1960s and early 1970s was hardly the Fed’s finest hour, but again, it is unrealistic to expect a public institution like the Fed to withhold the financing necessary to support a military action undertaken by the national government. Certainly, the role of Arthur Burns, appointed by Nixon in 1970 to become Fed Chairman in encouraging Nixon to impose wage-and-price controls as an anti-inflationary measure was one of the most disreputable chapters in the Fed’s history, and the cluelessness of Carter’s first Fed Chairman, G. William Miller, appointed to succeed Burns, is almost legendary, but given the huge oil-price increases of 1973-74 and 1978-79, a policy of accommodating those supply-side shocks by allowing a temporary increase in inflation was probably optimal. So, given the difficult circumstances under which the Fed was operating, the increased inflation of the 1970s was not entirely undesirable.

But although Friedman was often sensitive to the subtleties and nuances of policy making when rendering scholarly historical and empirical judgments, he rarely allowed subtleties and nuances to encroach on his denunciations when he was operating in full rabble-rousing mode.

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Pedantry and Mastery in Following Rules

From George Polya’s classic How to Solve It (p. 148).

To apply a rule to the letter, rigidly, unquestioningly, in cases where it fits and cases where it does not fit, is pedantry. Some pedants are poor fools; they never did understand the rule which they apply so conscientiously and so indiscriminately. Some pedants are quite successful; they understood their rule, at least in the beginning (before they became pedants), and chose a good one that fits in many cases and fails only occasionally.

To apply a rule with natural ease, with judgment, noticing the cases where it fits, and without ever letting the words of the rule obscure the purpose of the action or the opportunities of the situation, is mastery.

Polya, of course, was distinguishing between pedantry and mastery in applying rules for problem solving, but his distinction can be applied more generally: a distinction between following rules using judgment (aka discretion) and following rules mechanically without exercising judgment (i.e., without using discretion). Following rules by rote need not be dangerous when circumstances are more or less those envisioned when the rules were originally articulated, but, when unforeseen circumstances arise,  making the rule unsuitable to the new circumstances, following rules mindlessly can lead to really bad outcomes.

In the real world, the rules that we live by have to be revised and reinterpreted constantly in the light of experience and of new circumstances and changing values. Rules are supposed to conform to deeper principles, but the specific rules that we try to articulate to guide our actions are in need of periodic revision and adjustment to changing circumstances.

In deciding cases, judges change the legal rules that they apply by recognizing subtle — and relevant — distinctions that need to be taken into account in rendering decisions. They do not adjust rules willfully and arbitrarily. Instead, relying on deeper principles of justice and humanity, they adjust or bend the rules to temper the injustices that would from a mechanical and unthinking application of the rules. By exercising judgment — in other words, by doing what judges are supposed to do — they uphold, rather than subvert, the rule of law in the process of modifying the existing rules. The modern fetish for depriving judges of the discretion to exercise judgment in rendering decisions is antithetical to the concept of the rule of law.

A similar fetish for rules-based monetary policy, i.e., a monetary system requiring the monetary authority to mechanically follow some numerical rule, is an equally outlandish misapplication of the idea that law is nothing more than a system of rules and that judges should do more than select the relevant rule to be applied and render a decision based on that rule without considering whether the decision is consistent with the deeper underlying principles of justice on which the legal system as a whole is based.

Because judges exercise coercive power over the lives and property of individuals, the rule of law requires their decisions to be justified in terms of the explicit rules and implicit and explicit principles of the legal system judges apply. And litigants have a right to appeal judgments rendered if they can argue that the judge misapplied the relevant legal rules. Having no coercive power over the lives or property of individuals, the monetary authority need not be bound by the kind of legal constraints to which judges are subject in rendering decisions that directly affect the lives and property of individuals.

The apotheosis of the fetish for blindly following rules in monetary policy was the ideal expressed by Henry Simons in his famous essay “Rules versus Authorities in Monetary Policy” in which he pleaded for a monetary rule that “would work mechanically, with the chips falling where they may. We need to design and establish a system good enough so that, hereafter, we may hold to it unrationally — on faith — as a religion, if you please.”

However, Simons, recovering from this momentary lapse into irrationality, quickly conceded that his plea for a monetary system good enough to be held on faith was impractical, abandoning it in favor of the more modest goal of stabilizing the price level. However, Simons’s student Milton Friedman, surpassed his teacher in pedantry, invented what came to be known as his k-percent rule, under which the Federal Reserve was to be required to make the total quantity of  money in the economy increase continuously at an annual rate of growth equal to k percent. Friedman actually believed that his rule could be implemented by a computer, so that he confidently — and foolishly — recommended abolishing the Fed.

Eventually, after erroneously forecasting the return of double-digit inflation for nearly two decades, Friedman, a fervent ideologue but also a superb empirical economist, reluctantly allowed his ideological predispositions to give way in the face of contradictory empirical evidence and abandoned his k-percent rule. That was a good, if long overdue, call on Friedman’s part, and it should serve as a lesson and a warning to advocates of imposing overly rigid rules on the monetary authorities.

Noah Smith on Bitcoins: A Failure with a Golden Future

Noah Smith and I agree that, as I argued in my previous post, Bitcoins have no chance of becoming a successful money, much less replacing or displacing the dollar as the most important and widely used money in the world. In a post on Bloomberg yesterday, Noah explains why Bitcoins are nearly useless as money, reiterating a number of the points I made and adding some others of his own. However, I think that Bitcoins must sooner or later become worthless, while Noah thinks that Bitcoins, like gold, can be a worthwhile investment for those who think that it is fiat money that is going to become worthless. Here’s how Noah puts it.

So cryptocurrencies won’t be actual currencies, except for drug dealers and other people who can’t use normal forms of payment. But will they be good financial investments? Some won’t — some will be scams, and many will simply fall into disuse and be forgotten. But some may remain good investments, and even go up in price over many decades.

A similar phenomenon has already happened: gold. Legendary investor Warren Buffett once ridiculed gold for being an unproductive asset, but the price of the yellow metal has climbed over time:

Why has gold increased in price? One reason is that it’s not quite useless — people use gold for jewelry and some industrial applications, so the metal slowly goes out of circulation, increasing its scarcity.

And another reason is that central banks now own more than 17% of all the gold in the world. In the 1980s and 1990s, when the value of gold was steadily dropping to as little as $250 an ounce, central banks were selling off their unproductive gold stocks, until they realized that, in selling off their gold stocks, they were driving down the value of all the gold sitting in their vaults. Once they figured out what they were doing, they agreed among themselves that they would start buying gold instead of selling it. And in the early years of this century, gold prices started to rebound.

But another reason is that people simply believe in gold. In the end, the price of an asset is what people believe it’s worth.

Yes, but it sure does help when there are large central banks out there buying unwanted gold, and piling it up in vaults where no one else can do anything with it.

Many people believe that fiat currencies will eventually collapse, and that gold will reemerge as the global currency.

And it’s the large central banks that issue the principal fiat currencies whose immense holdings of gold reserves that keep the price of gold from collapsing.

That narrative has survived over many decades, and the rise of Bitcoin as an alternative hasn’t killed it yet. Maybe there’s a deeply embedded collective memory of the Middle Ages, when governments around the world were so unstable that gold and other precious metals were widely used to make payments.

In the Middle Ages, the idea of, and the technology for creating, fiat money had not yet been invented, though coin debasement was widely practiced. It took centuries before a workable system for controlling fiat money was developed.

Gold bugs, as advocates of gold as an investment are commonly known, may simply be hedging against the perceived possibility that the world will enter a new medieval period.

How ill-mannered of them not to thank central banks for preventing the value of gold from collapsing.

Similarly, Bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies may never go to zero, even if no one ends up using them for anything. They represent a belief in the theory that fiat money is doomed, and a hedge against the possibility that fiat-based payments systems will one day collapse. When looking for a cryptocurrency to invest in, it might be useful to think not about which is the best payments system, but which represents the most enduring expression of skepticism about fiat money itself.

The problem with cryptocurrencies is that there is no reason to think that central banks will start amassing huge stockpiles of cryptocurrencies, thereby ensuring that the demand for cryptocurrencies will always be sufficient to keep their value at or above whatever level the central banks are comfortable with.

It just seems odd to me that some people want to invest in Bitcoins, which provide no present or future real services, and almost no present or future monetary services, in the belief that it is fiat money, which clearly does provide present and future monetary services, and provides the non-trivial additional benefit of enabling one to discharge tax liabilities to the government, is going to become worthless sometime in the future.

If your bet that Bitcoins are going to become valuable depends on the forecast that dollars will become worthless, you probably need to rethink your investment strategy.


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.

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