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Further Thoughts on Bitcoins, Fiat Moneys, and Network Effects

In a couple of tweets to me and J. P. Koning, William Luther pointed out, I think correctly, that the validity of the backward-induction argument in my previous post explaining why bitcoins, or any fiat currency not made acceptable for discharging tax obligations, cannot retain a positive value requires that there be a terminal date after which bitcoins or fiat currency will no longer be accepted in exchange be known with certainty.

 

But if the terminal date is unknown, the backward-induction argument doesn’t work, because everyone (or at least a sufficient number of people) may assume that there will always be someone else willing to accept their soon-to-be worthless holdings of fiat money in exchange for something valuable. Thus, without a certain terminal date, it is not logically necessary for the value of fiat money to fall to zero immediately, even though everyone realizes that,  at some undetermined future time, its value will fall to zero.

In short, the point is that if enough people think that they will be able to unload their holdings of a fundamentally worthless asset on someone more foolish than they are, a pyramid scheme need not collapse quickly, but may operate successfully for a long time. Uncertainty about the terminal date gives people an incentive to gamble on when the moment of truth will arrive. As long as enough people are willing to take the gamble, the pyramid won’t collapse, even if those people know that it sooner or later it will collapse.

Robert Louis Stevenson described the theory quite nicely in a short story, “The Bottle Imp,” which has inspired a philosophic literature concerning the backward induction argument that is known as the “bottle imp paradox,” (further references in the linked wikipedia entry) and the related related “unexpected hanging paradox,” and the “greater fool theory.”

Although Luther’s point is well-taken, it’s not clear to me that, at least on an informal level, my argument about fiat money is without relevance. Even though a zero value for fiat money is logically necessary, a positive value is not assured. The value of fiat money is indeterminate, and the risk of a collapse of value or a hyperinflation is, would indeed be a constant risk for a pure fiat money if there were no other factors, e.g., acceptability for discharging tax liabilities, operating else to support a positive value. Even if a positive value were maintained for a time, a collapse of value could occur quite suddenly; there could well be a tipping point at which a critical mass of people expecting the value to fall to zero could overwhelm the optimism of those expecting the value to remain remain positive causing a convergence of self-fulfilling expectations of a zero value.

But this is where network effects come into the picture to play a stabilizing role. If network effects are very strong, which they certainly are for a medium of exchange in any advanced market economy, there is a powerful lock-in for most people, because almost all transactions taking place in the economy are carried out by way of a direct or indirect transfer of the medium of exchange. Recontracting in terms of an alternative medium of exchange is not only costly for each individual, but would require an unraveling of the existing infrastructure for carrying out these transactions with little chance of replacing it with a new medium-of-exchange-network infrastructure.

Once transactors have been locked in to the existing medium-of-exchange-network infrastructure, the costs of abandoning the existing medium of exchange may be prohibitive, thereby preventing a switch from the existing medium of exchange, even though people realize that there is a high probability that the medium of exchange will eventually lose its value, the costs to each individual of opting out of the medium-of-exchange network being prohibitive as would be the transactions costs of arriving at a voluntary collective shift to some new medium of exchange.

However, it is possible that small countries whose economies are highly integrated with the economies of neighboring countries, are in a better position to switch from to an alternative currency if the likelihood that the currently used medium of exchange will become worthless increases. So the chances of seeing a sudden collapse of an existing medium of exchange are greater in small open economies than in large, relatively self-contained, economies.

Based on the above reasoning suggests the following preliminary conjecture: the probability that a fiat currency that is not acceptable for discharging tax liabilities could retain a positive value would depend on two factors: a) the strength of network effects, and b) the proportion of users of the existing medium of exchange that have occasion to use an alternative medium of exchange in carrying out their routine transactions.

Shilling for Bitcoins

Bitcoins have been on a wild ride these past several months. After the November 2013 crash which saw the value of bitcoins plummet from over $1000 a coin to less than $300 a coin in just over a year, bitcoins seem to stabilize in a fairly tight range between $250 and $350 until early November 2015 when the price started to climb gradually reaching $730 last July before a brief decline to less than $600 in August, when another sustained price rise commenced. The price rise accelerated in December, and bitcoin price broke the $1000 barrier early in January, reaching $1100 last week before plummeting to less than $800 (a loss of almost of a third in value). Bitcoins have again recovered, climbing back over $900, and now at about $890 as of this writing (11:22pm EST).

In earlier posts (e.g., here and here) I have suggested that bitcoins are a bubble phenomenon, because bitcoins have no fundamental value, their only use being a medium of exchange. Some people believe that all forms of paper or token money, unless associated with some sort of promise or expectation of convertibility into a real asset, are bubbles. The reason why privately issued inconvertible paper money is unlikely to have any value is that people would expect it eventually to have zero value in the future, inasmuch as no one would want to be stuck holding paper money when there is no one left to trade with. The rational expectation that the future value of paper money must go to zero implies, by the mathematical argument known as backward induction, that its value today must be zero. If its value today exceeds zero, then the violation of backward induction, must be termed as a bubble.

That at least is the theory. However, that theory of the worthlessness of paper money applies only to privately issued money, not to government issued money, because government issued money can be given a current value if the government accepts the paper money it issues as payment for tax liability. At peak periods when the public has a net liability to pay taxes to the government, the aggregate outstanding stock of money must have a real value at least as great as the net outstanding aggregate private-sector tax liability to the government.

So I was very interested today to read a post on NADAQ.com “Why Bitcoin Has Value” by David Perry, chief architect for BitcoinStore and author of the Bitcoin blog Coding in My Sleep. Perry deals intelligently with many of the issues that I have raised in my earlier posts, so it will be interesting to try to follow him as he tries to explain why Bitcoins really do have value.

To begin, we really need to understand why anything has value. Fans of post-apocalyptic fiction will often point out that in the end, the only things of real value are those that sustain and defend life. Perhaps they’re right on one level, but with the rise of civilized societies things got a bit more complex, because the things that sustain and defend those societies also gain a certain degree of value. It is in this context that all monies, Bitcoin included, gain their value. Since our societies rely heavily on trade and commerce, anything that facilitates the exchange of goods and services has some degree of value.

In case you missed it, there was a bit of a logical leap there. Things can be valuable either because we are willing to give up something in return for the services we derive from owning them or possessing them, or because we believe that we can exchange them to other people for things that we derive services from owning or possessing them. If something is valuable only because it facilitates trade, you run into the logical problem of backward induction. At some point, far into the future, there will be nobody left to trade with, so the medium of exchange won’t have any more value. Something like gold does have value today because it glitters and people are willing to give up something to be able to derive those glitter services. But a piece of paper? No glitter services from a piece of paper. Of course if the government prints the piece of paper, the piece of paper can serve as a get-out-of-jail card, which some people will be willing to pay a lot for. A bitcoin does not glitter and it won’t get you out of jail.

Imagine, for example, a pre-money marketplace where the barter system is king. Perhaps you’re a fisherman coming to market with the day’s catch and you’re looking to go home with some eggs. Unfortunately for you, the chicken farmer has no use for fish at the moment, so you need to arrange a complex series of exchanges to end up with something the egg seller actually wants. You’ll probably lose a percentage of your fish’s value with each trade, and you also must know the exchange rate of everything with respect to everything else. What a mess.

This is where money saves the day. By agreeing on one intermediate commodity, say, silver coins, two is the maximum number of exchanges anyone has to make. And there’s only one exchange rate for every other commodity that matters: its cost in silver coins.

In truth there is more complexity involved—some things, like your fish, would make very poor money indeed. Fish don’t stay good for very long, they’re not particularly divisible, and depending on the exchange rate, you might have to carry a truly absurd amount of them to make your day’s purchases.

On the other hand, silver coins have their inherent problems too, when traded on extremely large or extremely small scales. This is what is truly valuable about Bitcoin: It’s better money.

Again that same pesky old problem. Silver, like gold, provides services other than serving as money. It has a value independent of being a medium of exchange, so, at the margin, there are people out there who value it as much for its glitter or other real services as other people value it for its services as a medium of exchange. But the only series that a bitcoin provides is that someone out there expects somebody else to accept it in trade. Why makes that a sustainable value rather than a bubble? Just asking, but I’m still waiting for an answer.

It’s been a long time since those first “hard” monies were developed, and today we transact primarily with digital representations of paper currency. We imagine bank vaults filled with stacks of cash, but that’s almost never the case these days—most money exists merely as numbers in a database. There’s nothing wrong with this type of system, either; it works fantastically well in an age where physical presence during a transaction is not a given. The problem is that the system is aging and far too often plagued by incompetence or greed.

Every IT guy knows that from time to time you have to take a drastic step: throw the old system in the trash and build a new one from scratch. Old systems, such as our current monetary system, have been patched so many times they are no longer functioning as efficiently as they should.

We previously patched our problems with gold and silver by introducing paper banknotes. We patched further problems by removing the precious metal backing those banknotes, then patched them again and again to allow wire transfers, credit cards, debit cards, direct deposit and online billpay. All the cornerstones of modern life are just patches on this ancient system.

But what would you do if you had the chance to start over? What if you could make purely digital money based on modern technologies to solve modern needs? What if we didn’t need those dusty old systems or the people making absurd profits maintaining them? This is Bitcoin.

Am I missing something? Just what is the defect with the good old dollar that the Bitcoin is improving upon? This sounds like: “it’s better, cuz it’s newer.” That’s not an explanation; it’s just like saying: “it’s better, cuz I say it’s better.”

Bitcoin isn’t another patch, another layer of abstraction added on top of an aging and over-complex system. Bitcoin isn’t another bank or payment processor coming up with new ways to move old dollars. Bitcoin is instead a simple, elegant and modern replacement for the entire concept of money. It has value for exactly the same reason as the paper money in your wallet: It simplifies the exchange of goods and services, not in the antique setting of a barter system bazaar, but in the current setting of modern internet-enabled life.

“But that’s only why it’s useful,” I hear some of you saying. “Why does it actually have value?”

Yes! That’s exactly what I’m saying, and I’m still waiting for an answer.

The two-word answer is one most economists are familiar with: network effect. The network effect is a lovely piece of jargon that refers to the quite commonsense statement that networked products and services tend to have more value when more people use them. The most common example is the telephone. During its early days when few people had access to telephones their utility, and therefore their value, were minimal. Today practically everyone has a phone, so its utility and value is [sic] so high as to be unquestionable. In this way the value of Bitcoin is directly tied to the number of its users and the frequency of their use.

OK, I get that. Just one problem. The dollar has already internalized all those network effects. To get people to switch from dollars to bitcoins, bitcoins would have to offer transactions services that are spectacularly better than those provided by the dollar. What exactly are those spectacularly better transactions services that bitcoins are providing?

Of course Bitcoin’s value stemming from the network effect is not without its own unique difficulties. When the network is still relatively small, each new group’s entry or egress can create massive price fluctuations, resulting in huge profits for early adopters. Unfortunately, this makes Bitcoin look, on the surface, too good to be true—a bit like a Ponzi or pyramid scheme.

Ponzis and pyramids are distinct and different forms of fraud, but they share one thing in common: The first ones in make a lot of money while the last ones in foot the bill. Both feature initial “investors” being paid out directly from new investors’ money. The return is always too good to be true and the gains (for those who actually get gains) are exponential.

The huge increase in value (along with occasional huge drops in value) may be good for early investors, but they are fatal for an aspiring medium of exchange. What you want from a medium of exchange is not a rapidly increasing value, but a nearly (if not necessarily perfectly) stable value. There is no upper limit on the value of a bitcoin and no lower limit. So the bitcoin lacks any mechanism for ensure the stable value that is essential for a well-functioning medium of exchange.

Because Bitcoin’s value has risen so dramatically since its 2009 debut, it seems to fit this sort of a profile at first glance, but then so does every new technology. It’s just not normally the case that we get to invest in this sort of technology and profit as it’s adopted. Imagine being able to invest in the concept of email back in 1965 when some clever hacker at MIT found a way to use primitive multi-user computer systems to pass messages. It might have seemed like a silly waste then, but owning even a tiny percentage of the rights to email today would make one wealthy beyond imagining.

Technologies follow a known adoption curve, which tends to include a period of exponential rise. Bitcoin is no exception. Ponzis and pyramids both create value for their oldest investors by stealing from the new. There’s no economics involved—just theft.

Bitcoin creates value for the old investors and the new by splitting a finite currency supply more ways. That’s not trickery or theft, just good old-fashioned supply and demand at work—a basic and ancient economic principle applied to the world’s newest currency system.

The maximum number of bitcoins is bounded from above, meaning that if it ever did begin to internalize those network effects and the demand for bitcoins did rise, the increased demand would cause its value to skyrocket, which would undermine its suitability as a medium of exchange. The market capitalization of bitcoins hit an all-time high of $15 billion last week. The US monetary base is $3.5 trillion, which is about 230 times the market capitalization of bitcoins. I mean, get real. Bitcoins, by design, are incapable of ever becoming a widely adopted medium of exchange. So even if there were to be a collapse of the dollar — and that outcome may be beyond the capacity of even a Trump Presidency to achieve – it could not be the bitcoin that replaced it as the world’s dominant currency.

La Republique Constitutionelle, C’est Moi

In addition to being popular with the poorly educated, our President-elect also has a committed corps of  highly educated, scholarly supporters. One of the more notable of these is a scholarly type who, writing under the somewhat pretentious pseudonym “Publius Decius Mus” (hereinafter PDM), described the 2016 election as the Flight 93 Election, which seems an odd way to encourage voting for someone, inasmuch as the passengers on flight 93 could not have expected to survive their attack on their hijackers. By implication, a vote for PDM’s choice for President was a vote for national suicide. The suicide committed by the passengers on Flight 93 averted an even greater catastrophe, but what is the larger catastrophe averted by this act of national suicide? But I digress.

Without exactly addressing the peculiarity of the metaphor he used to frame the choice facing voters in 2016, PDM, in a subsequent response to critics, explained that his point was that, although the United States of America might continue to exist if Hillary Clinton were elected President, it would no longer be a Constitutional Republic. A Clinton election, PDM argued, would mean that the country would inevitably continue on its current irreversible path toward an Administrative State ruled by a cadre of faceless bureaucrats and experts unaccountable to the people or their elected representatives.

Thus, in PDM’s view, the outcome of the election has preserved the future of the US as a Constitutional Republic, though, as already noted, that interpretation seems to be belied by the metaphor with which PDM chose to frame the choice presented to voters. At any rate, PDM, while acknowledging that his chosen candidate was an imperfect standard bearer for the cause of Constitutional Republicanism, argued that, by speaking out against the policies of unrestricted immigration, free trade, and military interventionism pursued by all recent administrations, his preferred candidate was the last, best — indeed the only — hope for the preservation of our Constitutional Republic.

The transfer of power to the new administration has not yet taken place, but we have already seen evidence of the commitment of PEOTUS to Constitutional Republicanism. Of course to gauge the commitment, it may help to first have a general idea of the main characteristics of a Constitutional Republic, which we may summarize as follows:

  • The people are sovereign and exercise their sovereignty through a government of elected representatives.
  • The powers exercised by these representatives are limited by a basic law (the Constitution) defining the lawful powers that these representative may exercise.
  • The rights of the people are protected by a rule of law that allows the government to restrict or abridge the rights of citizens only by enacting laws consistent with the Constitution.

But before discussing the attachment of the PEOTUS to Constitutional Republicanism, I want to refer to a post I wrote about six months ago in which I discussed an extraordinary 20th century British politician whose influence, for better or worse, is still felt in Britain, a politician who, in opposing immigration by non-whites, including those already legally residing in Britain, and, in arguing for preserving England/Britain as a legally homogeneous ethnic nation, expressed almost 50 years ago many of the feelings and resentments now animating supporters of PDM’s preferred candidate for President in 2016. That politician was Enoch Powell.

Whatever one might think of Powell — and my own feelings about him are a mixture of admiration and revulsion — he had a genuine commitment to the ideals of personal liberty and the rule of law, though those ideals, as he himself acknowledged, did not rank at the top of his scale of values. I mention Powell in this context because, in criticizing the concept of “voluntary” wage-and-price guidelines to combat inflation – a popular idea in the 1960s and 1970s —  Powell brilliantly described these guidelines as the “rule of the threat of law,” meaning that the government forced coerced businesses and unions to comply with its wishes, not by enacting legislation, thereby requiring compliance by the force of law, but by making it understood, either by explicit statement or by implication, that failure to comply with the guidelines would result in the enactment of legislation requiring compliance under even more onerous terms. This method of achieving policy objectives, by coercing members of the public, not by law, but through open or veiled threats, is the antithesis of the rule of law; it aims at coercing members of the public – businesses and workers – to take actions against their best interests by threatening them with even more unpleasant consequences if they fail to comply with requests or demands of government officials that have no legal standing.

Interestingly, when queried about not having paid taxes in past years, and about having sold products in the US produced overseas, and about having employed foreign workers in domestic construction projects, the PEOTUS pointed out that, in not paying taxes, in selling products in the US produced overseas, and in employing foreign workers on domestic construction projects, he had been in full compliance with the laws of the United States, so that he was only pursuing his own economic self-interest as he, a US citizen, had every right to do. However, the PEOTUS apparently now finds it intolerable that private business firms should make economic decisions in the interests of their owners in the way that he, by his own admission, had done when he ran his own business.

Unless Carrier, GM, and Ford and other businesses do what the PEOTUS wants them to do, they will suffer retribution; non-compliant companies are threatened with a 35% tariff applied on products they manufacture abroad. It is one thing to impose a tariff on imported goods in general; it is quite another to impose a tariff selectively to punish companies for taking actions in the economic interests of their owners of which the PEOTUS disapproves. That is precisely the rule of the threat of law against which Enoch Powell eloquently and rightly warned.

This kind of trampling on the rule of law is not what one would expect to occur in a Constitutional Republic. And remember, that according to PDM, it was with a view to preserving our Constitution Republic that he decided whom to support for President in 2016. So one can’t help wondering if PDM now feels that he has now been vindicated. Perhaps . . . if his idea of a Constitutional Republic approximates the idea of the state held by King Louis XIV.

Wherein Hayek Agrees with DeLong that Just Because You’re Rich, It Doesn’t Mean You Deserve to Be

Recently Brad DeLong expounded on the extent to which the earnings that accrue to individuals do not correspond to the contributions total output that can be ascribed to the personal efforts of those individuals or the contributions made by resources owned by thoe people. Here’s DeLong:

Pascal Lamy: “When the wise man points at the moon, the fool looks at the finger…”

Perhaps in the end the problem is that people want to pretend that they are filling a valuable role in the societal division of labor, and are receiving no more than they earn–than they contribute.

But that is not the case. The value–the societal dividend–is in the accumulated knowledge of humanity and in the painfully constructed networks that make up our value chains.

A “contribution” theory of what a proper distribution of income might be can only be made coherent if there are constant returns to scale in the scarce, priced, owned factors of production. Only then can you divide the pile of resources by giving to each the marginal societal product of their work and of the resources that they own.

That, however, is not the world we live in.

In a world–like the one we live in–of mammoth increasing returns to unowned knowledge and to networks, no individual and no community is especially valuable. Those who receive good livings are those who are lucky–as Carrier’s workers in Indiana have been lucky in living near Carrier’s initial location. It’s not that their contribution to society is large or that their luck is replicable: if it were, they would not care (much) about the departure of Carrier because there would be another productive network that they could fit into a slot in.

All of this “what you deserve” language is tied up with some vague idea that you deserve what you contribute–that what your work adds to the pool of society’s resources is what you deserve.

This illusion is punctured by any recognition that there is a large societal dividend to be distributed, and that the government can distribute it by supplementing (inadequate) market wages determined by your (low) societal marginal product, or by explicitly providing income support or services unconnected with work via social insurance. Instead, the government is supposed to, somehow, via clever redistribution, rearrange the pattern of market power in the economy so that the increasing-returns knowledge- and network-based societal dividend is predistributed in a relatively egalitarian way so that everybody can pretend that their income is just “to each according to his work”, and that they are not heirs and heiresses coupon clipping off of the societal capital of our predecessors’ accumulated knowledge and networks.

On top of this we add: Polanyian disruption of patterns of life–local communities, income levels, industrial specialization–that you believed you had a right to obtain or maintain, and a right to believe that you deserve. But in a market capitalist society, nobody has a right to the preservation of their local communities, to their income levels, or to an occupation in their industrial specialization. In a market capitalist society, those survive only if they pass a market profitability test. And so the only rights that matter are those property rights that at the moment carry with them market power–the combination of the (almost inevitably low) marginal societal products of your skills and the resources you own, plus the (sometimes high) market power that those resources grant to you.

This wish to believe that you are not a moocher is what keeps people from seeing issues of distribution and allocation clearly–and generates hostility to social insurance and to wage supplement policies, for they rip the veil off of the idea that you deserve to be highly paid because you are worth it. You aren’t.

And this ties itself up with regional issues: regional decline can come very quickly whenever a region finds that its key industries have, for whatever reason, lost the market power that diverted its previously substantial share of the knowledge- and network-based societal dividend into the coffers of its firms. The resources cannot be simply redeployed in other industries unless those two have market power to control the direction of a share of the knowledge- and network-based societal dividend. And so communities decline and die. And the social contract–which was supposed to have given you a right to a healthy community–is broken.

As I have said before, humans are, at a very deep and basic level, gift-exchange animals. We create and reinforce our social bonds by establishing patterns of “owing” other people and by “being owed”. We want to enter into reciprocal gift-exchange relationships. We create and reinforce social bonds by giving each other presents. We like to give. We like to receive. We like neither to feel like cheaters nor to feel cheated. We like, instead, to feel embedded in networks of mutual reciprocal obligation. We don’t like being too much on the downside of the gift exchange: to have received much more than we have given in return makes us feel very small. We don’t like being too much on the upside of the gift exchange either: to give and give and give and never receive makes us feel like suckers.

We want to be neither cheaters nor saps.

It is, psychologically, very hard for most of us to feel like we are being takers: that we are consuming more than we are contributing, and are in some way dependent on and recipients of the charity of others. It is also, psychologically, very hard for most of us to feel like we are being saps: that others are laughing at us as they toil not yet consume what we have produced.

And it is on top of this evopsych propensity to be gift-exchange animals–what Adam Smith called our “natural propensity to truck, barter, and exchange”–we have built our complex economic division of labor. We construct property and market exchange–what Adam Smith called our natural propensity “to truck, barter, and exchange” to set and regulate expectations of what the fair, non-cheater non-sap terms of gift-exchange over time are.

We devise money as an institution as a substitute for the trust needed in a gift-exchange relationship, and we thus construct a largely-peaceful global 7.4B-strong highly-productive societal division of labor, built on:

  • assigning things to owners—who thus have both the responsibility for stewardship and the incentive to be good stewards…
  • very large-scale webs of win-win exchange… mediated and regulated by market prices…

There are enormous benefits to arranging things this way. As soon as we enter into a gift-exchange relationship with someone or something we will see again–perhaps often–it will automatically shade over into the friend zone. This is just who we are. And as soon as we think about entering into a gift-exchange relationship with someone, we think better of them. Thus a large and extended division of labor mediated by the market version of gift-exchange is a ver powerful creator of social harmony.

This is what the wise Albert Hirschman called the doux commerce thesis. People, as economists conceive them, are not “Hobbesians” focusing on their narrow personal self-interest, but rather “Lockeians”: believers in live-and-let live, respecting others and their spheres of autonomy, and eager to enter into reciprocal gift-exchange relationships—both one-offs mediated by cash alone and longer-run ones as well.

In an economist’s imagination, people do not enter a butcher’s shop only when armed cap-a-pie and only with armed guards. They do not fear that the butcher will knock him unconscious, take his money, slaughter him, smoke him, and sell him as long pig.

Rather, there is a presumed underlying order of property and ownership that is largely self-enforcing, that requires only a “night watchman” to keep it stable and secure.

Yet to keep the fiction that we are all fairly playing the reciprocal game of gift exchange in a 7.4 billion-strong social network–that we are neither cheaters nor saps–we need to ignore that we are coupon clippers living off of our societal inheritance.

And to do this, we need to do more than (a) set up a framework for the production of stuff, (b) set up a framework for the distribution of stuff, and so (c) create a very dense reciprocal network of interdependencies to create and reinforce our belief that we are all one society.

We need to do so in such a way that people do not see themselves, are not seen as saps–people who are systematically and persistently taken advantage of by others in their societal and market gift-exchange relationships. We need to do so in such a way that people do not see themselves, are not seen as, and are not moochers–people who systematically persistently take advantage of others in their societal and market gift-exchange relationships. We need to do this in the presence of a vast increasing-returns in the knowledge- and network-based societal dividend and in spite of the low societal marginal product of any one of us.

Thus we need to do this via clever redistribution rather than via explicit wage supplements or basic incomes or social insurance that robs people of the illusion that what they receive is what they have earned and what they are worth through their work.

Now I think it is an open question whether it is harder to do the job via predistribution, or to do the job via changing human perceptions to get everybody to understand that

  • no, none of us is worth what we are paid.
  • we are all living, to various extents, off of the dividends from our societal capital
  • those of us who are doing especially well are those of us who have managed to luck into situations in which we have market power–in which the resources we control are (a) scarce, (b) hard to replicate quickly, and (c) help produce things
  • that rich people have a serious jones for right now.

Compare with Hayek’s Law, Legislation and Liberty volume 2, pp. 73-74

It has been argued persuasively that people will tolerate major inequalities of the material positions only if they believe that the different individuals get on the whole what they deserve, that they did in fact support the market order only because (and so long as) they thought that the differences of remuneration corresponded roughly to differences of merit, and that in consequence the maintenance of a free society presupposes the belief that some sort of “social justice” is being done. The market order, however, does not in fact owe its origin to such beliefs, or was originally justified in this manner. This order could develop, after its earlier beginnings had decayed during the middle ages and to some extent been destroyed by the restrictions imposed by authority, when a thousand years of vain efforts to discover substantively just prices or wages were abandoned and the late schoolmen recognized them to be empty formulae and taught instead that the prices determined by just conduct of the parties in the market, i.e., the competitive prices arrived at without fraud, monopoly and violence, was all that justice required. It was from this tradition that John Locke and his contemporaries derived the classical liberal conception of justice for which, as has been rightly said, it was only ‘the way in which competition was carried on, not its results’, that could be just or unjust.

It is unquestionably true that, particularly among those who were very successful in the market order, a belief in a much stronger moral justification of individual success developed, and that, long after the basic principles of such an order had been fully elaborated and approved by catholic moral philosophers, it had in the Anglo-Saxon world received strong support from Calvinist teaching.It certainly is important in the market order (or free enterprise society, misleadingly called ‘capitalism’) that the individuals believe that their well-being depends primarily on their own efforts and decisions. Indeed, few circumstances will do more to make a person energetic and efficient than the belief that it depends chiefly on him whether he will reach the goals he has set himself. For this reason this belief is often encouraged by education and governing opinion — it seems to me, generally much to the benefit of most of the members of society in which it prevails, who will owe many important material and moral improvements to persons guided by it. But it leads not doubt also to an exaggerated confidence in the truth of this generalization which to those who regard themselves (and perhaps are) equally able but have failed must appear as a bitter irony and severe provocation.

It is probably a misfortune that, especially in the USA, popular writers like Samuel Smiles and Horatio Alger, and later the sociologist W. G. Sumner, have defended free enterprise on the ground that it regularly rewards the deserving, and it bodes ill for the future of the market order that this seems to have become the only defence of it which is understood by the general public. That it has largely become the basis of the self-esteem of the businessman often gives him an air of self-righteousness which does not make him more popular. [If only!]

It is therefore a real dilemma to what extent we ought to encourage in the young a belief that when they really try they will succeed, or should rather emphasize that inevitably some unworthy will succeed and some worthy fail — whenever we ought to allow the views of those groups to prevail with whom the over-confidence in the appropriate reward of the able and industrious is strong and who in consequence will do much that benefits the rest, and whether without such partly erroneous beliefs the large number will tolerate actual differences in rewards which will be based only partly on achievement and partly on mere chance.

On Intellectual Scruples

Citing Jonathan Chait’s stinging takedown of a remarkably silly assertion by Larry Kudlow that it’s good to have a government run by the super-rich, because the super-rich, already satiated with wealth, are immune to the blandishments that might corrupt the merely rich or upper middle-class, Paul Krugman also skewers Kudlow for a deeper inconsistency in his world-view and that of other devotees of supply-side economics.

What Chait doesn’t note is the special irony of seeing this argument from Kudlow, or indeed any right-wing advocate of supply-side economics. Remember, their whole worldview is based around the claim that cutting taxes on rich people will work economic miracles, because of incentives: let a plutocrat keep more of an extra dollar in income, and he’ll innovate, create jobs, lead us to an earthly paradise in order to get that extra income.

To belabor what should be obvious: either the wealthy care about having more money or they don’t. If lower marginal tax rates are an incentive to produce more, the prospect of personal gain is an incentive to engage in corrupt practices. You can’t go all Ayn Rand/Gordon Gekko on the importance of greed as a motivator while claiming that wealth insulates a man from temptation. . . .

But what’s more interesting and revealing, I think, is the way people like Kudlow for whom incentives are supposedly all suddenly say something completely different when it comes to conflicts of interest.

And this is telling us something significant: namely, that supply-side economic theory is and always was a sham. It was never about the incentives; it was just another excuse to make the rich richer.

I understand why Krugman is annoyed with Kudlow and other supply-siders. Kudlow is clearly being inconsistent. But Krugman forgets that he is a partisan advocate, so, like all advocates, he tailors his arguments to support the momentary interest and needs of the political party, and candidates, and causes with which he has aligned himself. And, like any advocate, he searches for whatever arguments he can find to support his side at a particular moment, without caring too much whether the argument he is making today is consistent with another that he made yesterday, or, for that matter, one he made 5 minutes ago. So it’s certainly fair to conclude that Kudlow doesn’t really understand what he is talking about, or that, lacking intellectual scruples, he will say whatever he thinks will advance the interests of his “team.”

But you can’t infer from Kudlow’s lack of intellectual scruples that everyone who favors reducing marginal tax rates is simply trying to make the super-rich even richer. There is a prima facie plausible argument to be made that reducing marginal tax rates would enhance economic efficiency. So the charge that everyone who advocates reducing marginal tax rates is doing so for venal and reprehensible motives just strikes me as, well, implausible.

I mean is it so hard to imagine that an intelligent person could believe that low marginal rates of taxation would promote economic efficiency and enhance productivity? Not for me at any rate, because I used to share that belief myself. If I hold a different view now than I used to, I don’t think it’s because I have become a better person than I used to be (though I hope I have); it’s because I now have serious doubts that low marginal rates of taxation are necessarily efficiency-enhancing. Those doubts result from my having realized that a lot of income — especially in the highest income brackets — is generated by activities whose private benefits greatly exceed their social benefits — the gains to some reflecting interpersonal transfers rather than increased output — so that low marginal income tax rates may, on balance, reduce overall economic efficiency.

Given the lack of research, or my lack of knowledge about the research, on the gaps between the private and social benefits from a lot of very highly remunerated activities, like various forms of financial trading and speculation, research and development aimed at creating intellectual property, and other forms of investment in winner-take-all activities and enterprises, I have no idea what the socially optimum marginal tax rate really is. I therefore have no definite position either for or against changing marginal tax rates.

But I do understand why someone with a perfectly innocent state of mind could believe that not only the super-rich, but even the least well-off members of society, could potentially benefit from reduced marginal tax rates. If you want to disprove or debunk that belief, the right way to do so is to explain what’s wrong with the straightforward — possibly simplistic — reasoning that says that lowering marginal tax rates enhances economic efficiency; it is not by asserting that such a belief could be held only out of venal motives.

As I said, I do understand, and share, Krugman’s frustration with Kudlow, but I still don’t believe that every supporter of low marginal tax rates is lacking in intellectual scruples. And not only is impugning the motives of everyone that disagrees with you unfair, it degrades an already low level of public discourse even further, and may not even be an effective rhetorical strategy.

Imagining the Gold Standard

The Marginal Revolution University has posted a nice little 10-minute video conversation between Scott Sumner and Larry about the gold standard and fiat money, Scott speaking up for fiat money and Larry weighing in on the side of the gold standard. I thought that both Scott and Larry acquitted themselves admirably, but several of the arguments made by Larry seemed to me to require either correction or elaboration. The necessary corrections or elaborations do not strengthen the defense of the gold standard that Larry presents so capably.

Larry begins with a defense of the gold standard against the charge that it caused the Great Depression. As I recently argued in my discussion of a post on the gold standard by Cecchetti and Schoenholtz, it is a bit of an overreach to argue that the Great Depression was the necessary consequence of trying to restore the international gold standard in the 1920s after its collapse at the start of World War I. Had the leading central banks at the time, the Federal Reserve, the Bank of England, and especially the Bank of France, behaved more intelligently, the catastrophe could have been averted, allowing the economic expansion of the 1920s to continue for many more years, thereby averting subsequent catastrophes that resulted from the Great Depression. But the perverse actions taken by those banks in 1928 and 1929 had catastrophic consequences, because of the essential properties of the gold-standard system. The gold standard was the mechanism that transformed stupidity into catastrophe. Not every monetary system would have been capable of accomplishing that hideous transformation.

So while it is altogether fitting and proper to remind everyone that the mistakes that led to catastrophe were the result of choices made by policy makers — choices not required by any binding rules of central-bank conduct imposed by the gold standard — the deflation caused by the gold accumulation of the Bank of France and the Federal Reserve occurred only because the gold standard makes deflation inevitable if there is a sufficiently large increase in the demand for gold. While Larry is correct that the gold standard per se did not require the Bank of France to embark on its insane policy of gold accumulation, it should at least give one pause that the most fervent defenders of that insane policy were people like Ludwig von Mises, F.A. Hayek, Lionel Robbins, and Charles Rist, who were also the most diehard proponents of maintaining the gold standard after the Great Depression started, even holding up the Bank of France as a role model for other central banks to emulate. (To be fair, I should acknowledge that Hayek and Robbins, to Mises’s consternation, later admitted their youthful errors.)

Of course, Larry would say that under the free-banking system that he favors, there would be no possibility that a central bank like the Bank of France could engage in the sort of ruinous policy that triggered the Great Depression. Larry may well be right, but there is also a non-trivial chance that he’s not. I prefer not to take a non-trivial chance of catastrophe.

Larry, I think, makes at least two other serious misjudgments. First, he argues that the instability of the interwar gold standard can be explained away as the result of central-bank errors – errors, don’t forget, that were endorsed by the most stalwart advocates of the gold standard at the time – and that the relative stability of the pre-World War I gold standard was the result of the absence of the central banks in the US and Canada and some other countries while the central banks in Britain, France and Germany were dutifully following the rules of the game.

As a factual matter, the so-called rules of the game, as I have observed elsewhere (also here), were largely imaginary, and certainly never explicitly agreed upon or considered binding by any monetary authority that ever existed. Moreover, the rules of the game were based on an incorrect theory of the gold standard reflecting the now discredited price-specie-flow mechanism, whereby differences in national price levels under the gold standard triggered gold movements that would be deflationary in countries losing gold and inflationary in countries gaining gold. That is a flatly incorrect understanding of how the international adjustment mechanism worked under the gold standard, because price-level differences large enough to trigger compensatory gold flows are inconsistent with arbitrage opportunities tending to equalize the prices of all tradable goods. And finally, as McCloskey and Zecher demonstrated 40 years ago, the empirical evidence clearly refutes the proposition that gold flows under the gold standard were in any way correlated with national price level differences. (See also this post.) So it is something of a stretch for Larry to attribute the stability of the world economy between 1880 and 1914 either to the absence of central banks in some countries or to the central banks that were then in existence having followed the rules of the game in contrast to the central banks of the interwar period that supposedly flouted those rules.

Focusing on the difference between the supposedly rule-based behavior of central banks under the classical gold standard and the discretionary behavior of central banks in the interwar period, Larry misses the really critical difference between the two periods. The second half of the nineteenth century was a period of peace and stability after the end of the Civil War in America and the short, and one-sided, Franco-Prussian War of 1870. The rapid expansion of the domain of the gold standard between 1870 and 1880 was accomplished relatively easily, but not without significant deflationary pressures that lasted for almost two decades. A gold standard had been operating in Britain and those parts of the world under British control for half a century, and gold had long been, along with silver, one of the two main international monies and had maintained a roughly stable value for at least half a century. Once started, the shift from silver to gold caused a rapid depreciation of silver relative to gold, which itself led the powerful creditor classes in countries still on the silver standard to pressure their governments to shift to gold.

After three and a half decades of stability, the gold standard collapsed almost as soon as World War I started. A non-belligerent for three years, the US alone remained on the gold standard until it prohibited the export of gold upon entry into the war in 1917. But, having amassed an enormous gold hoard during World War I, the US was able to restore convertibility easily after the end of the War. However, gold could not be freely traded even after the war. Restrictions on the ownership and exchange of gold were not eliminated until the early 1920s, so the gold standard did not really function in the US until a free market for gold was restored. But prices had doubled between the start of the war and 1920, while 40% of the world’s gold reserves were held by the US. So it was not the value of gold that determined the value of the U.S. dollar; it was the value of the U.S. dollar — determined by the policy of the Federal Reserve — that determined the value of gold. The kind of system that was operating under the classical gold standard, when gold had a clear known value that had been roughly maintained for half a century or more, did not exist in the 1920s when the world was recreating, essentially from scratch, a new gold standard.

Recreating a gold standard after the enormous shock of World War I was not like flicking a switch. No one knew what the value of gold was or would be, because the value of gold itself depended on a whole range of policy choices that inevitably had to be made by governments and central banks. That was just the nature of the world that existed in the 1920s. You can’t just assume that historical reality away.

Larry would like to think and would like the rest of us to think that it would be easy to recreate a gold standard today. But it would be just as hard to recreate a gold standard today as it was in the 1920s — and just as perilous. As Thomas Aubrey pointed out in a comment on my recent post on the gold standard, Russia and China between them hold about 25% of the world’s gold reserves. Some people complain loudly about Chinese currency manipulation now. How would you like to empower the Chinese and the Russians to manipulate the value of gold under a gold standard?

The problem of recreating a gold standard was beautifully described in 1922 by Dennis Robertson in his short classic Money. I have previously posted this passage, but as Herbert Spencer is supposed to have said, “it is only by repeated and varied iteration that alien conceptions can be forced upon reluctant minds.” So, I will once again let Dennis Robertson have the final word on the gold standard.

We can now resume the main thread of our argument. In a gold standard country, whatever the exact device in force for facilitating the maintenance of the standard, the quantity of money is such that its value and that of a defined weight of gold are kept at an equality with one another. It looks therefore as if we could confidently take a step forward, and say that in such a country the quantity of money depends on the world value of gold. Before the war this would have been a true enough statement, and it may come to be true again in the lifetime of those now living: it is worthwhile therefore to consider what, if it be true, are its implications.

The value of gold in its turn depends on the world’s demand for it for all purposes, and on the quantity of it in existence in the world. Gold is demanded not only for use as money and in reserves, but for industrial and decorative purposes, and to be hoarded by the nations of the East : and the fact that it can be absorbed into or ejected from these alternative uses sets a limit to the possible changes in its value which may arise from a change in the demand for it for monetary uses, or from a change in its supply. But from the point of view of any single country, the most important alternative use for gold is its use as money or reserves in other countries; and this becomes on occasion a very important matter, for it means that a gold standard country is liable to be at the mercy of any change in fashion not merely in the methods of decoration or dentistry of its neighbours, but in their methods of paying their bills. For instance, the determination of Germany to acquire a standard money of gold in the [eighteen]’seventies materially restricted the increase of the quantity of money in England.

But alas for the best made pigeon-holes! If we assert that at the present day the quantity of money in every gold standard country, and therefore its value, depends on the world value of gold, we shall be in grave danger of falling once more into Alice’s trouble about the thunder and the lightning. For the world’s demand for gold includes the demand of the particular country which we are considering; and if that country be very large and rich and powerful, the value of gold is not something which she must take as given and settled by forces outside her control, but something which up to a point at least she can affect at will. It is open to such a country to maintain what is in effect an arbitrary standard, and to make the value of gold conform to the value of her money instead of making the value of her money conform to the value of gold. And this she can do while still preserving intact the full trappings of a gold circulation or gold bullion system. For as we have hinted, even where such a system exists it does not by itself constitute an infallible and automatic machine for the preservation of a gold standard. In lesser countries it is still necessary for the monetary authority, by refraining from abuse of the elements of ‘play’ still left in the monetary system, to make the supply of money conform to the gold position: in such a country as we are now considering it is open to the monetary authority, by making full use of these same elements of ‘play,’ to make the supply of money dance to its own sweet pipings.

Now for a number of years, for reasons connected partly with the war and partly with its own inherent strength, the United States has been in such a position as has just been described. More than one-third of the world’s monetary gold is still concentrated in her shores; and she possesses two big elements of ‘play’ in her system — the power of varying considerably in practice the proportion of gold reserves which the Federal Reserve Banks hold against their notes and deposits (p. 47), and the power of substituting for one another two kinds of common money, against one of which the law requires a gold reserve of 100 per cent and against the other only one of 40 per cent (p. 51). Exactly what her monetary aim has been and how far she has attained it, is a difficult question of which more later. At present it is enough for us that she has been deliberately trying to treat gold as a servant and not as a master.

It was for this reason, and for fear that the Red Queen might catch us out, that the definition of a gold standard in the first section of this chapter had to be so carefully framed. For it would be misleading to say that in America the value of money is being kept equal to the value of a defined weight of gold: but it is true even there that the value of money and the value of a defined weight of gold are being kept equal to one another. We are not therefore forced into the inconveniently paradoxical statement that America is not on a gold standard. Nevertheless it is arguable that a truer impression of the state of the world’s monetary affairs would be given by saying that America is on an arbitrary standard, while the rest of the world has climbed back painfully on to a dollar standard.

HT: J. P. Koning

Why Hayek Was not a Conservative

At the end of his classic treatise The Constitution of Liberty, F. A. Hayek added a postscript entitled “Why I am not a Conservative.” Like everything he wrote, what Hayek has to say about the weaknesses of conservatism can be read with profit even by those who disagree with his arguments. The following passage, for a number of reasons, seems especially apt and relevant now, some 55 years after it was written.

Conservatives feel instinctively that it is new ideas more than anything else that cause change. But, from its point of view rightly, conservatism fears new ideas because it has no distinctive principles of  its own to oppose them; and, by its distrust of theory and its lack of imagination concerning anything except that which experience has already proved, it deprives itself of the weapons needed in the struggle of ideas. Unlike liberalism, with its fundamental belief in the long-range power of ideas, conservatism is bound by the stock of ideas inherited at a given time. And since it does not really believe in the power of argument, its last resort is generally a claim to superior wisdom, based on some self-arrogated superior quality. The difference shows itself most clearly in the different attitudes of the two traditions to the advance of knowledge. Though the liberal certainly does not regard all change as progress, he does regard the advance of knowledge as one of the chief aims of human effort and expects from it the gradual solution of such problems and difficulties as we can hope to solve. Without preferring the new merely because it is new, the liberal is aware that it is of the essence of human achievement that it produces something new; and he is prepared to come to terms with new knowledge, whether he likes its immediate effects or not.

Personally, I find that the most objectionable feature of the conservative attitude is its propensity to reject well-substantiated new knowledge because it dislikes some of the consequences which seem to follow from it – or, to put it bluntly, its obscurantism. I will not deny that scientists as much as others are given to fads and fashions and that we have much reason to be cautious in accepting the conclusions that they draw from their latest theories. But the reasons for our reluctance must themselves be rational and must be kept separate from our regret that the new theories upset our cherished beliefs. I can have little patience with those who oppose, for instance, the theory of evolution or what are called “mechanistic” explanations of the phenomena of life because of certain moral
consequences which at first seem to follow from these theories, and still less with those who regard it as irrelevant or impious to ask certain questions at all. By refusing to face the facts, the conservative only weakens his own position. Frequently the conclusions which rationalist presumption draws from new scientific insights do not at all follow from them. But only by actively taking part in the elaboration of the consequences of new discoveries do we learn whether or not they fit into our world picture and, if so, how. Should our moral beliefs really prove to be dependent on factual assumptions shown to be incorrect, it would hardly be moral to defend them by refusing to acknowledge facts.

Connected with the conservative distrust if the new and the strange is its hostility to internationalism and its proneness to a strident nationalism. Here is another source of its weakness in the struggle of ideas. It cannot alter the fact that the ideas which are changing our civilization respect no boundaries. But refusal to acquaint one’s self with new ideas merely deprives one of the power of effectively countering them when necessary. The growth of ideas is an international process, and only those who fully take part in the discussion will be able to exercise a significant influence. It is no real argument to say that an idea is un-American, or un-German, nor is a mistaken or vicious ideal better for having been conceived by one of our compatriots.

A great deal more might be said about the close connection between conservatism and nationalism, but I shall not dwell on this point because it might be felt that my personal position makes me unable to sympathize with any form of nationalism. I will merely add that it is this nationalistic bias which frequently provides the bridge from conservatism to collectivism: to think in terms of “our” industry or resource is only a short step away from demanding that these national assets be directed in the national interest. But in this respect the Continental liberalism which derives from the French Revolution is little better than conservatism. I need hardly say that nationalism of this sort is something very different from patriotism and that an aversion to nationalism is fully compatible with a
deep attachment to national traditions. But the fact that I prefer and feel reverence for some of the traditions of my society need not be the cause of hostility to what is strange and different.

Only at first foes it seem paradoxical that the anti-internationalism of conservatism is so frequently associated with imperialism. But the more a person dislikes the strange and thinks his own ways superior, the more he tends to regard it as his mission to “civilize” others – not by the voluntary and unhampered intercourse which the liberal favors, but by bringing them the blessings of efficient government. It is significant that here again we frequently find the conservatives joining hands with the socialists against the liberals – not only in England, where the Webbs and their Fabians were outspoken imperialists, or in Germany, where state socialism and colonial expansionism went together and found the support of the same group of “socialists of the chair,” but also in the United States,
where even at the time of the first Roosevelt it could be observed: “the Jingoes and the Social Reformers have gotten together; and have formed a political party, which threatened to capture the Government and use it for their program of Caesaristic paternalism, a danger which now seems to have been averted only by the other parties having adopted their program in a somewhat milder degree and form.”

 

Golden Misconceptions

The gold standard, as an international institution, existed for less than 40 years, emerging first, and by accident, in England, and more than a century and a half later, spreading by a rapid series of independent, but interrelated, decisions to the United States, Germany, and most of Europe and much of the rest of the world. After its collapse with the outbreak of World War I, reconstruction of the gold standard was thought by many to be a precondition for recreating the stable and prosperous international order that had been brutally demolished by the Great War. But that attempt ended catastrophically when the restoration of the gold standard was subverted by the insane gold-accumulation policy of the Bank of France and the failure of the Federal Reserve and other national monetary authorities to heed the explicit warnings of two of the leading monetary theorists of immediate postwar era, R. G. Hawtrey and Gustav Cassel, that unless the monetary demand for gold was kept from increasing as a result of the resumption of convertibility, a renewed gold standard could trigger a disastrous deflation.

But despite its short, checkered, and not altogether happy, history as an international institution, the gold standard, in its idealized and largely imagined form has retained a kind of nostalgic aura of stability, excellence and grandeur, becoming an idiom for anything that’s the best of its kind. So no, Virginia, there is no Santa Claus, and the gold standard is not the gold standard of monetary systems.

My own impression is that most, though not all, supporters of the gold standard are smitten by a kind of romantic, unthinking, and irrational attachment to the idea that the gold standard is a magic formula for recovering a lost golden age. But having said that, I would also add that I actually think that the gold standard, in its brief first run as an international monetary system, did not perform all that badly, and I can even sympathize with the ultimately unsuccessful attempt to restore the gold standard after World War I. I just think that the risks of scrapping our current monetary arrangements and trying to replace them with a gold standard recreated from scratch, over a century after it ceased to function effectively in practice, are far too great to consider it seriously as a practical option.

Not long ago I was chided by Larry White for being unduly harsh in my criticism of the gold standard in my talk at the Mercatus Center conference on Monetary Rules for a Post-Crisis World. I responded to Larry in this post. But I now find myself somewhat exasperated by a post by Stephen Cecchetti and Kermit Schoenholtz on the blog they maintain for their money and banking textbook. I don’t know much about Schoenholtz, but Cecchetti is an economist of the first rank. They clearly share my opposition to gold standard, but I’m afraid that some of their arguments against the gold standard are misguided or misconceived. I don’t write this post just to be critical; it’s only because their arguments reflect common and long-standing misconceptions and misunderstandings that have become part of the received doctrine about the gold standard that those arguments are worth taking the time and effort to criticize.

So let’s start from the beginning of their post, which is actually quite a good beginning. They quote Barry Eichengreen, one of our most eminent economic historians.

“Far from being synonymous with stability, the gold standard itself was the principal threat to financial stability and economic prosperity between the wars.” Barry Eichengreen, Golden Fetters.

That’s certainly true, but notice that the quotation from Eichengreen explicitly refers to the interwar period; it’s not a blanket indictment.

After quoting Eichengreen, Cecchetti and Schoenholtz refer to a lecture delivered by Ben Bernanke when he was still Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board. Quoting this lecture is not a good sign, because back in 2012 after Bernanke gave the lecture, I wrote a post in which I explained why Bernanke had failed to provide a coherent criticism of the gold standard.

In his 2012 lecture Origins and Mission of the Federal Reserve, then-Federal Reserve Board Chair Ben Bernanke identifies four fundamental problems with the gold standard:

  • When the central bank fixes the dollar price of gold, rather than the price of goods we consume, fluctuations in the dollar price of goods replace fluctuations in the market price of gold.
  • Since prices are tied to the amount of money in the economy, which is linked to the supply of gold, inflation depends on the rate that gold is mined.
  • When the gold standard is used at home and abroad, it is an exchange rate policy in which international transactions must be settled in gold.
  • Digging gold out of one hole in the ground (a mine) to put it into another hole in the ground (a vault) wastes resources.

Bernanke’s first statement is certainly correct, but his second statement ignores the fact that the amount of new gold extracted from the earth in a year is only a small fraction of the existing stock of gold. Thus, fluctuations in the value of gold are more likely to be caused by fluctuations in the demand for gold than by fluctuations in supply. The third statement makes as much sense as saying that since the US economy operates on a dollar standard transactions must be settled in hard currency. In fact, the vast majority of legal transactions are settled not by the exchange of currency but by the exchange of abstract claims to currency. There is no reason why, under a gold standard, international transactions could not be settled by abstract claims to gold rather than in physical gold. I agree with the fourth statement.

Consistent with Bernanke’s critique, the evidence shows that both inflation and economic growth were quite volatile under the gold standard. The following chart plots annual U.S. consumer price inflation from 1880, the beginning of the post-Civil War gold standard, to 2015. The vertical blue line marks 1933, the end of the gold standard in the United States. The standard deviation of inflation during the 53 years of the gold standard is nearly twice what it has been since the collapse of the Bretton Woods system in 1973 (denoted in the chart by the vertical red line). That is, even if we include the Great Inflation of the 1970s, inflation over the past 43 years has been more stable than it was under the gold standard. Focusing on the most recent quarter century, the interval when central banks have focused most intently on price stability, then the standard deviation of inflation is less than one-fifth of what it was during the gold standard epoch.

Annual Consumer Price Inflation, 1880 to 2016

gold_standard_vs_dollar_standard

Source: Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.

I am sorry to say this, but comparing the average rate and the variability of inflation under the gold standard (1880-1933) and under a pure dollar standard (1973-2016) is tendentious and misleading, because the 20-year period from 1914 to 1933, a period marked by rapid wartime and post-war inflation and two post-war deflations, was a period when the gold standard either was not functioning at all (1914 to about 1922) or was being unsuccessfully reconstructed. Now it would be one thing to conclude from the failed attempt at reconstruction that a second attempt at reconstruction would be futile and potentially as disastrous as the first attempt, but that doesn’t seem to be what Ceccheti and Schoenholz are arguing. Instead, they include data from 20 years when the gold standard was either not operating at all or was operating dysfunctionally to make an unqualified comparison between the performance of the US economy under the gold standard and under a pure dollar standard. That simplistic comparison conveys almost no useful information.

A fairer comparison would be between the gold standard as it operated between 1880 and 1914 and either the dollar standard of the post-Bretton Woods era (1973 – 2016) or the period from 1991 to 2016 when, according to Cecchetti and Schoenholz, the Fed adopted an explicit or implicit inflation target as its primary policy objective. Changing the gold-standard period in this way reduces the average inflation rate from 0.86% to 0.23% a year and the standard deviation from 5.06% to 2.13%. That comparison is not obviously disadvantageous to the gold standard.

What about economic growth? Again, the gold standard was associated with greater volatility, not less. The following chart plots annual growth as measured by gross national product (gross domestic product only came into common use in the 1991.) The pattern looks quite a bit like that of inflation: the standard deviation of economic growth during the gold-standard era was more than twice that of the period since 1973. And, despite the Great Recession, the past quarter century has been even more stable. To use another, simpler, measure, in the period from 1880 to 1933 there were 15 business cycles identified by the National Bureau of Economic Research. That is, on average there was a recession once every 3½ years. By contrast, since 1972, there have been 7 recessions; one every 6 years.

Annual GNP Growth, 1880-2016

gold_standard_vs_dollar_standard_2

 

Source: FRED and Romer (1986)

Again, this comparison, like the inflation comparison is distorted by the exogenous disruption associated with World War I and its aftermath. Excluding the 1914 to 1933 period from the comparison would make for a far less one-sided comparison than the one presented by Cecchetti and Schoenholtz.

Finally, consider a crude measure of financial stability: the frequency of banking crises. From 1880 to 1933, there were at least 5 full-fledged banking panics: 1893, 1907, 1930, 1931, and 1933. Including the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s, in the past half century, there have been two.

But if we exclude the Great Depression period from the comparison, there were two banking panics under the gold standard and two under the dollar standard. So the performance of the gold standard when it was operating normally was not clearly inferior to the operation of the dollar standard.

So, on every score, the gold standard period was less stable. Prices were less stable; growth was less stable; and the financial system was less stable. Why?

We see six major reasons. First, the gold standard is procyclical. When the economy booms, inflation typically rises. In the absence of a central bank to force the nominal interest rate up, the real interest rate falls, providing a further impetus to activity. In contrast, countercyclical monetary policy—whether based on a Taylor rule or not—would lean against the boom.

I don’t know what the basis is for the factual assertion that high growth under a gold standard is associated with inflation. There were periods of high growth with very low or negative inflation under the gold standard. Periods of mild inflation, owing to a falling real value of gold, perhaps following significant discoveries of previously unknown gold deposits, may have had a marginal stimulative effect under the gold standard, but such episodes were not necessarily periods of economic instability.

At any rate it is not even clear why, if a countericyclical monetary policy were desirable, such a policy could not be conducted under the gold standard by a central bank constrained by an obligation to convert its liabilities into gold on demand. Some gold standard proponents, like Larry White for example, insist that a gold standard could and would function better without a central bank than with a central bank. I am skeptical about that position, but even if it is correct, there is nothing inherent in the idea of a gold standard that is inconsistent with the existence of a central bank that conducts a countercyclical policy, so I don’t understand why Cecchetti and Schoenholtz assert, without argument, that a central bank could not conduct a countercyclical policy under a gold standard.

Second, the gold standard has exchange rate implications. While we do not know for sure, we suspect that current U.S. advocates of a shift to gold are thinking of the case where the United States acts alone (rather than waiting to coordinate a global return to the gold standard). If so, the change would impose unnecessary risks on exporters and importers, their employees and their creditors. To see why, consider the consequences of a move in the global price of gold measured in some other currency, say British pounds. If the pound price of gold changed, but the dollar price of gold did not, the result would be a move in the real dollar-pound exchange rate. That is, unless the dollar prices of U.S. goods and the dollar wages of U.S. workers adjust instantly to offset gold price fluctuations, the real dollar exchange rate changes. In either case, the result would almost surely induce volatility of production, employment, and the debt burden.

If the US monetary policy were governed by a commitment to convert the dollar into gold at a fixed conversion rate, the dollar price of gold would remain constant and exchange rates of the dollar in terms of the pound and other non-gold currencies would fluctuate. We have fluctuating exchange rates now against the pound and other currencies. It is not clear to me why exchange rates would be more volatile under this system than they are currently.

More broadly, a gold standard suffers from some of the same problems as any fixed-exchange rate system. Not only can’t the exchange rate adjust to buffer external shocks, but the commitment invites speculative attacks because it lacks time consistency. Under a gold standard, the scale of the central bank’s liabilities—currency plus reserves—is determined by the gold it has in its vault. Imagine that, as a consequence of an extended downturn, people come to fear a currency devaluation. That is, they worry that the central bank will raise the dollar price of gold. In such a circumstance, it will be natural for investors to take their dollars to the central bank and exchange them for gold. The doubts that motivate such a run can be self-fulfilling: once the central bank starts to lose gold reserves, it can quickly be compelled to raise its dollar price, or to suspend redemption entirely. This is what happened in 1931 to the Bank of England, when it was driven off the gold standard. It happened again in 1992 (albeit with foreign currency reserves rather than gold) when Britain was compelled to abandon its fixed exchange rate.

Cecchetti and Schoenholtz articulate a valid concern, and it is a risk inherent in any gold standard or any monetary system based on trust in a redemption commitment. My only quibble is that Cecchetti and Schoenholtz overrate the importance of gold reserves. Foreign-exchange reserves would do just as well, and perhaps better, than gold reserves, because, unlike gold, foreign-exchange reserves yield interest.

Third, as historians have emphasized, the gold standard helped spread the Great Depression from the United States to the rest of the world. The gold standard was a global arrangement that formed the basis for a virtually universal fixed-exchange rate regime in which international transactions were settled in gold.

Here Cecchetti and Schoenholtz stumble into several interrelated confusions. First, while the gold standard was certainly an international transmission mechanism, the international linkage between national price levels being an essential characteristic of the gold standard, there is no reason to identify the United States as the source of a disturbance that was propagated to the rest of the world. Because the value of gold must be equalized in all countries operating under the gold standard, changes in the value of gold are an international, not a national, phenomenon. Thus, an increase in the demand for gold causing an increase in its value would have essentially the same effects on the world economy irrespective of the geographic location of the increase in the demand for gold. In the 1920s, the goal of reestablishing the gold standard meant restoring convertibility of the leading currencies into gold, so that price levels in all gold standard countries, all reflecting the internationally determined value of gold, were closely aligned.

This meant that a country with an external deficit — one whose imports exceed its exports — was required to pay the difference by transferring gold to countries with external surpluses. The loss of gold forced the deficit country’s central bank to shrink its balance sheet, reducing the quantity of money and credit in the economy, and driving domestic prices down. Put differently, under a gold standard, countries running external deficits face deflationary pressure. A surplus country’s central bank faced no such pressure, as it could choose whether to convert higher gold stocks into money or not. Put another way, a central bank can have too little gold, but it can never have too much.

Cecchetti and Schonholtz are confusing two distinct questions: a) what determines the common international value of gold? and b) what accounts for second-order deviations between national price levels? The important point is that movements in national price levels under the gold standard were highly correlated because, owing to international arbitrage of tradable goods, the value of gold could not differ substantially between countries on the gold standard. Significant short-run changes in the value of gold had to reflect changes in the total demand for gold because short-run changes in the supply of gold are only a small fraction of the existing stock. To be sure, short-run differences in inflation across countries might reflect special circumstances causing over- or under-valuation of particular currencies relative to one another, but those differences were of a second-order magnitude relative to the sharp worldwide deflation that characterized the Great Depression in which the price levels of all gold-standard countries fell simultaneously. It is always the case that some countries will be running trade deficits and some will be running trade surpluses. At most, that circmstance might explain small differences in relative rates of inflation or deflation across countries; it can’t explain why deflation was rampant across all countries at the same time.

The shock that produced the Great Depression was a shock to the real value of gold which was caused mainly by the gold accumulation policy of the Bank of France. However, the United States, holding about 40 percent of the world’s monetary gold reserves after World War I, could have offset or mitigated the French policy by allowing an outflow of some of its massive gold reserves. Instead, the Fed, in late 1928, raised interest rates yet again to counter what it viewed as unhealthy stock-market speculation, thereby intensifying, rather than mitigating, the deflationary effect of the gold-accumulation policy of the Bank of France. Implicitly, Cecchetti and Schoenholtz assume that the observed gold flows were the result of non-monetary causes, which is to say that gold flows were the result of trade imbalances reflecting purely structural factors, such as national differences in rates of productivity growth, or propensities to save, or demand and supply patterns, over which central banks have little or no influence. But in fact, central banks and monetary authorities based their policies on explicit or implicit goals for their holdings of gold reserves. And the value of gold ultimately reflected the combined effect of the policy decisions taken by all central banks thereby causing a substantial increase in the demand of national monetary authorities to hold gold.

This policy asymmetry helped transmit financial shocks in the United States abroad. By the late 1920s, the major economies had restored the pre-World War I gold standard. At the time, both the United States and France were running external surpluses, absorbing the world’s gold into their central bank vaults.

Cecchetti and Schoneholtz say explicitly “the United States and France were running external surpluses, absorbing the world’s gold into their central bank vaults” as if those surpluses just happened and were unrelated to the monetary policies deliberately adopted by the Bank of France and the Federal Reserve.

But, instead of allowing the gold inflows to expand the quantity of money in their financial systems, authorities in both countries tightened monetary policy to resist booming asset prices and other signs of overheating. The result was catastrophic, compelling deficit countries with gold outflows to tighten their monetary policies even more. As the quantity of money available worldwide shrank, so did the price level, adding to the real burden of debt, and prompting defaults and bank failures virtually around the world.

Cecchetti and Schoenholtz have the causation backwards; it was the tightness of monetary policy that caused gold inflows into France and later into the United States. The gold flows did not precede, but were the result of, already tight monetary policies. Cecchetti and Schoenholtz are implicitly adopting the sterilization model based on the price-specie-flow mechanism in which it is gold flows that cause, or ought to cause, changes in the quantity of money. I debunked the simplistic sterilization idea in this post. But, in fairness, I should acknowledge that Cecchetti and Schoenholz do eventually acknowledge that the demand by central banks to hold gold reserves is what determines actual monetary policy under the gold standard. But despite that acknowledgment, they can’t free themselves from the misconception that it was a reduction in the quantity of money, rather than an increase in the demand for gold, that caused the value of gold to rise in the Great Depression.

Fourth, economists blame the gold standard for sustaining and deepening the Great Depression. What makes this view most compelling is the fact that the sooner a country left the gold standard and regained discretionary control of its monetary policy, the faster it recovered. The contrast between Sweden and France is striking. Sweden left gold in 1931, and by 1936 its industrial production was 14 percent higher than its 1929 level. France waited until 1936 to leave, at which point its industrial production was fully 26 percent below the level just 7 years earlier (see here and here.) Similarly, when the U.S. suspended gold convertibility in March 1933—allowing the dollar to depreciate substantially—the financial and economic impact was immediate: deflation turned to inflation, lowering the real interest rate, boosting asset prices, and triggering one of the most powerful U.S. cyclical upturns (see, for example, Romer).

This is certainly right. My only quibble is that Cecchetti and Schoenholtz do not acknowledge that the Depression was triggered by a rapid increase in the international demand for gold by the world’s central banks in 1928-29, in particular the Bank of France and the Federal Reserve.

Turning to financial stability, the gold standard limits one of the most powerful tools for halting bank panics: the central bank’s authority to act as lender of last resort. It was the absence of this function during the Panic of 1907 that was the primary impetus for the creation of the Federal Reserve System. Yet, under a gold standard, the availability of gold limits the scope for expanding central bank liabilities. Thus, had the Fed been on a strict gold standard in the fall of 2008—when Lehman failed—the constraint on its ability to lend could again have led to a collapse of the financial system and a second Great Depression.

At best, the charge that the gold standard limits the capacity of a central bank to act as a lender of last resort is a serious oversimplification. The ability of a central bank to expand its liabilities is not limited by the gold standard in any way. What limits the ability of the central bank to expand its liabilities are gold-cover requirements such as those enacted by the Bank Charter Act of 1844 which imposed a 100% marginal reserve requirement on the issue of banknotes by the Bank of England beyond a fixed fiduciary issue requiring no gold cover. Subsequent financial crises in 1847, 1857, and 1866 were quelled as soon as the government suspended the relevant provisions of the Bank Charter Act, allowing the Bank of England to increase its note issue and satisfy the exceptional demands for liquidity that led to the crisis in the first place.

Finally, because the supply of gold is finite, the quantity available to the central bank likely will grow more slowly than the real economy. As a result, over long periods—say, a decade or more—we would expect deflation. While (in theory) labor, debt and other contracts can be arranged so that the economy will adjust smoothly to steady, long-term deflation, recent experience (including that with negative nominal interest rates) makes us skeptical.

Whether gold appreciates over the long-term depends on the rate at which the quantity of gold expands over time and the rate of growth of demand for gold over time. It is plausible to expect secular deflation under the gold standard, but it is hardly inevitable. I don’t think that we yet fully understand the conditions under which secular deflation is compatible with full employment. Certainly if we were confident that secular deflation is compatible with full employment, the case for secular deflation would be very compelling.

This brings us back to where we started. Under a gold standard, inflation, growth and the financial system are all less stable. There are more recessions, larger swings in cons umer prices and more banking crises. When things go wrong in one part of the world, the distress will be transmitted more quickly and completely to others. In short, re-creating a gold standard would be a colossal mistake.

These conclusions are based on very limited historical experience, and it is not clear how relevant that experience is for contemporary circumstances. The argument against a gold standard not so much that a gold standard could not in principle operate smoothly and efficiently. It is that, a real gold standard having been abandoned for 80 years, recreating a gold standard would be radical and risky undertaking completely lacking in a plausible roadmap for its execution. The other argument against the gold standard is that insofar as gold would be actually used as a medium of exchange in a recreated gold standard with a modern banking system, the banking system would be subject to the potentially catastrophic risk of a flight to quality in periods of banking instability, leading to a disastrous deflationary increase in the value of gold.

HT: J. P. Koning

The Trump Rally

David Beckworth has a recent post about the Trump stock-market rally. Just before the election I had a post in which I pointed out that the stock market seemed to be dreading the prospect of a Trump victory, based on the strong positive correlation between movements in the dollar value of the Mexican peso and the S&P 500, though, in response to a comment by one of my readers, I did partially walk back my argument. As the initial returns and exit polls briefly seemed to be pointing toward a Clinton victory, the correlation between the peso and the S&P 500 (futures) seemed to be very strong and getting stronger, and after the returns started to point increasingly toward a Trump victory, the strong correlation between the peso and the S&P 500 remained all too evident, showing a massive decline in both the peso and the S&P 500. But what seemed like a Trump panic was suddenly broken, when Mrs. Clinton phoned Trump to concede and Trump appeared to claim victory with a relatively restrained and conciliatory statement that calmed the worst fears about a messy transition and the potential for serious political instability. The survival of a Republican majority in the Senate was perhaps viewed as a further positive sign and strengthened hopes for business-friendly changes in the US corporate and personal taxes. The earlier losses in S&P 500 futures were reversed even without any recovery in the peso.

So what explains the turnaround in the reaction of the stock market to Trump’s victory? Here’s David Beckworth:

I have a new piece in The Hill where I argue markets are increasingly seeing the Trump shock as an inflection point for the U.S. economy:

It seems the U.S. economy is finally poised for robust economic growth, something that has been missing for the past eight years. Such strong economic growth is expected to cause the demand for credit to increase and the supply of savings to decline

Though this is not the main point, I will just register my disagreement with David’s version of how interest rates are determined, which essentially restates the “loanable-funds” theory of interest determination, which is often described as the orthodox alternative to the Keynesian liquidity preference theory of interest rates. I disagree that it is the alternative to the Keynesian theory. I think that is a very basic misconception perpetrated by macroeconomists with either a regrettable memory lapse or an insufficient understanding of, the Fisherian theory of interest rates. In the Fisherian theory interest rates are implicit in the intertemporal structure of all prices, they are therefore not determined in any single market, as asserted by the loanable-funds theory, any more than the price level is determined in any single market. The way to think about interest-rate determination is to ask the following question: at what structure of interest rates would holders of long-lived assets be content to continue holding the existing stock of assets? Current savings and current demand for credit are an epiphenomenon of interest-rate determination, not a determinant of interest rates — with the caveat that every factor that influences the intertemporal structure of prices is one of the myriad determinants of interest rates.

Together, these forces are naturally pushing interest rates higher. The Fed’s interest rate hike today is simply piggybacking on this new reality.

If “these forces” is interpreted in the way I have suggested in my above comment on David’s previous sentence, then I would agree with this sentence.

Here are some charts that document this upbeat economic outlook as seen from the treasury market. The first one shows the treasury market’s implicit inflation forecast (or “breakeven inflation”) and real interest rate at the 10-year horizon. These come from TIPs and have their flaws, but they provide a good first approximation to knowing what the bond market is thinking. In this case, both the real interest rate and expected inflation rate are rising. This implies the market expects both higher real economic growth and higher inflation. The two may be related–the higher expected inflation may be a reflection of higher expected nominal demand growth causing real growth. The higher real growth expectations are also probably being fueled by Trump’s supply-side reforms.

beckworth_interest_rates

I agree that the rise in real interest rates may reflect improved prospects for economic growth, and that the rising TIPS spread may reflect expectations of at least a small rise in inflation towards the Fed’s largely rhetorical 2-percent target. And I concur that a higher inflation rate could be one of the causes of improving implicit forecasts of economic growth. However, I am not so sure that expectations of rising inflation and supply-side reforms are the only explanations for rising real interest rates.

What “reforms” is Trump promising? I’m not sure actually, but here is a list of possibilities: 1) reducing and simplifying corporate tax rates, 2) reducing and simplifying personal tax rates, 3) deregulation, 4) tougher enforcement of immigration laws, 5) deportation of an undetermined number of illegal immigrants, 6) aggressively protectionist international trade policies.

I think that there is a broad consensus in favor of reducing corporate tax rates. Not only is the 35% marginal rate on corporate profits very high compared to the top corporate set by other countries, the interest deduction is a perverse incentive favoring debt rather than equity financing. As I pointed out in a post five years ago, Hyman Minsky, one of the favorite economists of the left, was an outspoken opponent of corporate income taxation in general, precisely because it encourages debt rather than equity financing. I think that the Obama administration would have been happy to propose reducing the corporate tax rate as part of a broader budget deal, but no broader deal with the Republican majority in Congress was possible, and a simple reduction of the corporate tax rate would have been difficult for Obama to sell to his own political base without offering them something that could be described as reducing inequality. So cutting the top corporate tax rate would almost certainly be a good thing (but subject to qualification by the arguments in the next paragraph), and expectations of a reduction in the top corporate rate would tend to raise stock prices, though the effect on stock prices would be moderated by increased issues of new corporate stock.

Reducing and simplifying corporate and personal tax rates seems like a good thing, but there’s at least one problem. Not all earnings of taxable income is socially productive. Lots of earned income is generated by completely, or partially, unproductive activities associated with private gains that exceed social gains. I have written in the past about how unproductive many types of information gathering and knowledge production is (e.g., here, here, here, and here). Much of this activity enables the person who acquires knowledge or information to gain an information advantage over people with whom he transacts, so the private return to the acquisition of such knowledge is greater than the social gain, because the gain to one party to the trade comes not from an increase in output but by way of a transfer from the other less-informed party to the transaction.

The same is true — to a somewhat lesser extent, but the basic tendency is the same – of activity aimed at the discovery of knew knowledge over which an intellectual property right can be exercised for a substantial length of time. The ability to extract monopoly rents over newly discovered knowledge is likely to confer a private gain on the discoverer greater than the social gain accruing from the discovery, because the first discoverer to acquire exclusive rights can extract the full value of the discovery even though the marginal benefit accruing to the discovery is only the value of the new knowledge over the elapsed time between the moment of the discovery and the moment when the discovery would have been made, perhaps soon afterwards, by someone else. In general, there is a whole range of income accruing to a variety of winner-takes-all activities in which the private gain to the winner greatly exceeds the social gain. A low marginal rate of income taxation increases the incentive to engage in such socially wasteful winner-takes-all activities.

Deregulation can be a good thing when it undermines monopolistic price-fixing and legally imposed entry barriers entrenching incumbent suppliers. A lot of regulation has historically been of this type. But although it is convenient for libertarian ideologues to claim that monopoly enhancement or entrenchment characterizes all government regulation, I doubt that most current regulations are for this purpose. A lot of regulation is aimed at preventing dishonest or misleading business practices or environmental pollution or damage to third-parties. So as an empirical matter, I don’t think we can say whether a reduction in regulation will have a net positive or a net negative effect on society. Nevertheless, regulation probably does reduce the overall earnings of corporations, so that a reduction in regulation will tend to raise stock prices. If it becomes easier for corporations to emit harmful pollution into the atmosphere and into our rivers, lakes and oceans, the reductions in private costs enjoyed by the corporations will be capitalized into their stock prices while the increase in social costs will be borne in a variety of ways by all individuals in the country or the world. Insofar as stock prices have risen since Trump’s election because of expectations of a roll back in regulation, it is not clear to me at least whether that reflects an increase in net social welfare or a capitalization of the value of enhanced rights to engage in socially harmful conduct.

The possible effects of changes in immigration laws, in the enforcement of immigration laws and in trade policies seem to me far too murky at this point even to speculate upon. I would just observe that insofar as the stock market has capitalized the effects of Trump’s supposed supply-side reforms, those reforms would have tended to reduce, not increase, inflation expectations. So it does not seem likely to me that whatever increase in stock prices we have seen so far reflects a pure supply-side effect.

I am more inclined to believe that the recent increases in stock prices and inflation expectations reflect expectations that Trump will fulfill his commitments to conduct irresponsible fiscal policies generating increased budget deficits, which the Republican majorities in Congress will now meekly accept and dutifully applaud, and that Trump will be able either to cajole or intimidate enough officials at the Federal Reserve to accommodate those policies or will appoint enough willing accomplices to the Fed to overcome the opposition of the current FOMC.

Larry White on the Gold Standard and Me

A little over three months ago on a brutally hot day in Washington DC, I gave a talk about a not yet completed paper at the Mercatus Center Conference on Monetary Rules for a Post-Crisis World. The title of my paper was (and still is) “Rules versus Discretion Historically Contemplated.” I hope to post a draft of the paper soon on SSRN.

One of the attendees at the conference was Larry White who started his graduate training at UCLA just after I had left. When I wrote a post about my talk, Larry responded with a post of his own in which he took issue with some of what I had to say about the gold standard, which I described as the first formal attempt at a legislated monetary rule. Actually, in my talk and my paper, my intention was not as much to criticize the gold standard as it was to criticize the idea, which originated after the gold standard had already been adopted in England, of imposing a fixed numerical rule in addition to the gold standard to control the quantity of banknotes or the total stock of money. The fixed mechanical rule was imposed by an act of Parliament, the Bank Charter Act of 1844. The rule, intended to avoid financial crises such as those experienced in 1825 and 1836, actually led to further crises in 1847, 1857 and 1866 and the latter crises were quelled only after the British government suspended those provisions of the Act preventing the Bank of England from increasing the quantity of banknotes in circulation. So my first point was that the fixed quantitative rule made the gold standard less stable than it would otherwise have been.

My second point was that, in the depths of the Great Depression, a fixed rule freezing the nominal quantity of money was proposed as an alternative rule to the gold standard. It was this rule that one of its originators, Henry Simons, had in mind when he introduced his famous distinction between rules and discretion. Simons had many other reasons for opposing the gold standard, but he introduced the famous rules-discretion dichotomy as a way of convincing those supporters of the gold standard who considered it a necessary bulwark against comprehensive government control over the economy to recognize that his fixed quantity rule would be a far more effective barrier than the gold standard against arbitrary government meddling and intervention in the private sector, because the gold standard, far from constraining the conduct of central banks, granted them broad discretionary authority. The gold standard was an ineffective rule, because it specified only the target pursued by the monetary authority, but not the means of achieving the target. In Simons view, giving the monetary authority to exercise discretion over the instruments used to achieve its target granted the monetary authority far too much discretion for independent unconstrained decision making.

My third point was that Henry Simons himself recognized that the strict quantity rule that he would have liked to introduce could only be made operational effectively if the entire financial system were radically restructured, an outcome that he reluctantly concluded was unattainable. However, his student Milton Friedman convinced himself that a variant of the Simons rule could actually be implemented quite easily, and he therefore argued over the course of almost his entire career that opponents of discretion ought to favor the quantity rule that he favored instead of continuing to support a restoration of the gold standard. However, Friedman was badly mistaken in assuming that his modified quantity rule eliminated discretion in the manner that Simons had wanted, because his quantity rule was defined in terms of a magnitude, the total money stock in the hands of the public, which was a target, not, as he insisted, an instrument, the quantity of money held by the public being dependent on choices made by the public, not just on choices made by the monetary authority.

So my criticism of quantity rules can be read as at least a partial defense of the gold standard against the attacks of those who criticized the gold standard for being insufficiently rigorous in controlling the conduct of central banks.

Let me now respond to some of Larry’s specific comments and criticisms of my post.

[Glasner] suggests that perhaps the earliest monetary rule, in the general sense of a binding pre-commitment for a money issuer, can be seen in the redemption obligations attached to banknotes. The obligation was contractual: A typical banknote pledged that the bank “will pay the bearer on demand” in specie. . . .  He rightly remarks that “convertibility was not originally undertaken as a policy rule; it was undertaken simply as a business expedient” without which the public would not have accepted demand deposits or banknotes.

I wouldn’t characterize the contract in quite the way Glasner does, however, as a “monetary rule to govern the operation of a monetary system.” In a system with many banks of issue, the redemption contract on any one bank’s notes was a commitment from that bank to the holders of those notes only, without anyone intending it as a device to govern the operation of the entire system. The commitment that governs a single bank ipso facto governs an entire monetary system only when that single bank is a central bank, the only bank allowed to issue currency and the repository of the gold reserves of ordinary commercial banks.

It’s hard to write a short description of a system that covers all possible permutations in the system. While I think Larry is correct in noting the difference between the commitment made by any single bank to convert – on demand — its obligations into gold and the legal commitment imposed on an entire system to maintain convertibility into gold, the historical process was rather complicated, because both silver and gold coins circulating in Britain. So the historical fact that British banks were making their obligations convertible into gold was the result of prior decisions that had been made about the legal exchange rate between gold and silver coins, decisions which overvalued gold and undervalued silver, causing full bodied silver coins to disappear from circulation. Given a monetary framework shaped by the legal gold/silver parity established by the British mint, it was inevitable that British banks operating within that framework would make their banknotes convertible into gold not silver.

Under a gold standard with competitive plural note-issuers (a free banking system) holding their own reserves, by contrast, the operation of the monetary system is governed by impersonal market forces rather than by any single agent. This is an important distinction between the properties of a gold standard with free banking and the properties of a gold standard managed by a central bank. The distinction is especially important when it comes to judging whether historical monetary crises and depressions can be accurately described as instances where “the gold standard failed” or instead where “central bank management of the monetary system failed.”

I agree that introducing a central bank into the picture creates the possibility that the actions of the central bank will have a destabilizing effect. But that does not necessarily mean that the actions of the central bank could not also have a stabilizing effect compared to how a pure free-banking system would operate under a gold standard.

As the author of Free Banking and Monetary Reform, Glasner of course knows the distinction well. So I am not here telling him anything he doesn’t know. I am only alerting readers to keep the distinction in mind when they hear or read “the gold standard” being blamed for financial instability. I wish that Glasner had made it more explicit that he is talking about a system run by the Bank of England, not the more automatic type of gold standard with free banking.

But in my book, I did acknowledge that there inherent instabilities associated with a gold standard. That’s why I proposed a system that would aim at stabilizing the average wage level. Almost thirty years on, I have to admit to having my doubts whether that would be the right target to aim for. And those doubts make me more skeptical than I once was about adopting any rigid monetary rule. When it comes to monetary rules, I fear that the best is the enemy of the good.

Glasner highlights the British Parliament’s legislative decision “to restore the convertibility of banknotes issued by the Bank of England into a fixed weight of gold” after a decades-long suspension that began during the Napoleonic wars. He comments:

However, the widely held expectations that the restoration of convertibility of banknotes issued by the Bank of England into gold would produce a stable monetary regime and a stable economy were quickly disappointed, financial crises and depressions occurring in 1825 and again in 1836.

Left unexplained is why the expectations were disappointed, why the monetary regime remained unstable. A reader who hasn’t read Glasner’s other blog entries on the gold standard might think that he is blaming the gold standard as such.

Actually I didn’t mean to blame anyone for the crises of 1825 and 1836. All I meant to do was a) blame the Currency School for agitating for a strict quantitative rule governing the total quantity of banknotes in circulation to be imposed on top of the gold standard, b) point out that the rule that was enacted when Parliament passed the Bank Charter Act of 1844 failed to prevent subsequent crises in 1847, 1857 and 1866, and c) that the crises ended only after the provisions of the Bank Charter Act limiting the issue of banknotes by the Bank of England had been suspended.

My own view is that, because the monopoly Bank of England’s monopoly was not broken up, even with convertibility acting as a long-run constraint, the Bank had the power to create cyclical monetary instability and occasionally did so by (unintentionally) over-issuing and then having to contract suddenly as gold flowed out of its vault — as happened in 1825 and again in 1836. Because the London note-issue was not decentralized, the Bank of England did not experience prompt loss of reserves to rival banks (adverse clearings) as soon as it over-issued. Regulation via the price-specie-flow mechanism (external drain) allowed over-issue to persist longer and grow larger. Correction came only with a delay, and came more harshly than continuous intra-London correction through adverse clearings would have. Bank of England mistakes boggled the entire financial system. It was central bank errors and not the gold standard that disrupted monetary stability after 1821.

Here, I think, we do arrive at a basic theoretical disagreement, because I don’t accept that the price-specie-flow mechanism played any significant role in the international adjustment process. National price levels under the gold standard were positively correlated to a high degree, not negatively correlated, as implied by the price-specie-flow mechanism. Moreover, the Bank Charter Act imposed a fixed quantitative limit on the note issue of all British banks and the Bank of England in particular, so the overissue of banknotes by the Bank of England could not have been the cause of the post-1844 financial crises. If there was excessive credit expansion, it was happening through deposit creation by a great number of competing deposit-creating banks, not the overissue of banknotes by the Bank of England.

This hypothesis about the source of England’s cyclical instability is far from original with me. It was offered during the 1821-1850 period by a number of writers. Some, like Robert Torrens, were members of the Currency School and offered the Currency Principle as a remedy. Others, like James William Gilbart, are better classified as members of the Free Banking School because they argued that competition and adverse clearings would effectively constrain the Bank of England once rival note issuers were allowed in London. Although they offered different remedies, these writers shared the judgment that the Bank of England had over-issued, stimulating an unsustainable boom, then was eventually forced by gold reserve losses to reverse course, instituting a credit crunch. Because Glasner elides the distinction between free banking and central banking in his talk and blog post, he naturally omits the third side in the Currency School-Banking School-Free Banking School debate.

And my view is that Free Bankers like Larry White overestimate the importance of note issue in a banking system in which deposits were rapidly overtaking banknotes as the primary means by which banks extended credit. As Henry Simons, himself, recognized this shift from banknotes to bank deposits was itself stimulated, at least in part, by the Bank Charter Act, which made the extension of credit via banknotes prohibitively costly relative to expansion by deposit creation.

Later in his blog post, Glasner fairly summarizes how a gold standard works when a central bank does not subvert or over-ride its automatic operation:

Given the convertibility commitment, the actual quantity of the monetary instrument that is issued is whatever quantity the public wishes to hold.

But he then immediately remarks:

That, at any rate, was the theory of the gold standard. There were — and are – at least two basic problems with that theory. First, making the value of money equal to the value of gold does not imply that the value of money will be stable unless the value of gold is stable, and there is no necessary reason why the value of gold should be stable. Second, the behavior of a banking system may be such that the banking system will itself destabilize the value of gold, e.g., in periods of distress when the public loses confidence in the solvency of banks and banks simultaneously increase their demands for gold. The resulting increase in the monetary demand for gold drives up the value of gold, triggering a vicious cycle in which the attempt by each to increase his own liquidity impairs the solvency of all.

These two purported “basic problems” prompt me to make two sets of comments:

1 While it is true that the purchasing power of gold was not perfectly stable under the classical gold standard, perfection is not the relevant benchmark. The purchasing power of money was more stable under the classical gold standard than it has been under fiat money standards since the Second World War. Average inflation rates were closer to zero, and the price level was more predictable at medium to long horizons. Whatever Glasner may have meant by “necessary reason,” there certainly is a theoretical reason for this performance: the economics of gold mining make the purchasing power of gold (ppg) mean-reverting in the face of monetary demand and supply shocks. An unusually high ppg encourages additional gold mining, until the ppg declines to the normal long-run value determined by the flow supply and demand for gold. An unusually low ppg discourages mining, until the normal long-run ppg is restored. It is true that permanent changes in the gold mining cost conditions can have a permanent impact on the long-run level of the ppg, but empirically such shocks were smaller than the money supply variations that central banks have produced.

2 The behavior of the banking system is indeed critically important for short-run stability. Instability wasn’t a problem in all countries, so we need to ask why some banking systems were unstable or panic-prone, while others were stable. The US banking system was panic prone in the late 19th century while the Canadian system was not. The English system was panic-prone while the Scottish system was not. The behavioral differences were not random or mere facts of nature, but grew directly from differences in the legal restrictions constraining the banks. The Canadian and Scottish systems, unlike the US and English systems, allowed their banks to adequately diversify, and to respond to peak currency demands, thus allowed banks to be more solvent and more liquid, and thus avoided loss of confidence in the banks. The problem in the US and England was not the gold standard, or a flaw in “the theory of the gold standard,” but ill-conceived legal restrictions that weakened the banking systems.

Larry makes two good points, but I doubt that they are very important in practice. The problem with the value of gold is that there is a very long time lag before the adjustment in the rate of output of new gold will cause the value of gold to revert back to its normal level. The annual output of gold is only about 3 percent of the total stock of gold. If the monetary demand for gold is large relative to the total stock and that demand is unstable, the swing in the overall demand for gold can easily dominate the small resulting change in the annual rate of output. So I do not have much confidence that the mean-reversion characteristic of the purchasing power of gold to be of much help in the short or even the medium term. I also agree with Larry that the Canadian and Scottish banking systems exhibited a lot more stability than the neighboring US and English banking systems. That is an important point, but I don’t think it is decisive. It’s true that there were no bank failures in Canada in the Great Depression. But the absence of bank failures, while certainly a great benefit, did not prevent Canada from suffering a downturn of about the same depth and duration as the US did between 1929 and 1933. The main cause of the Great Depression was the deflation caused by the appreciation of the value of gold. The deflation caused bank failures when banks were small and unstable and did not cause bank failures when banks were large and diversified. But the deflation  was still wreaking havoc on the rest of the economy even though banks weren’t failing.


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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