The gold standard is not a price-fixing scheme, Professor Friedman!
Over a year ago I wrote a rejoinder to a New York Times article entitled A Stirring in the Long-Suffering Gold Market. As could be expected, my piece did not meet with the approval of the editors, but subsequently it has received wide circulation on the Internet under the title A Tale of Three Lies, circulation much wider than the NYT could ever provide. The three lies about gold I treated were:
(1) Gold is a barren asset not capable of earning a return.
(2) Gold is not lent, it is leased, and the lease rate has nothing to do with interest rates.
(3) The lease rate on gold is normally very low because the world's central banks have a lot to lease.
The truth of the matter is that the lease rate marks the rock-bottom of the interest-rate spectrum. The rate of interest on any irredeemable currency is greater by the depreciation premium. This fact makes gold the best money in the world, but at the same time it also invites white blackmail, to use Ayn Rand's felicitous phrase, epitomized by the threat: "I shall make your virtue destroy you!" Indeed, central banks have been lending gold at one percent to hedge funds, knowing full well that it will be sold and the proceeds invested at five. They do this because they think that they can have their cake and eat it. Leasing gold suppresses the gold price just as cash sales would, and the protracted fall in its price will discredit gold as the best money money can buy. Obviously, this diabolic plot wouldn't work if the rate of interest on gold weren't the lowest. There is also a fourth lie about gold, the propagation of which also belongs to the genus of white blackmail.
(4) The gold standard is a price-fixing scheme and, as such, incompatible with the ideal of a free market economy.
For years I have hesitated to expose the fourth lie as it is propagated under the trade mark of Milton Friedman, the founder of the monetarist school. Thanks to his enormous prestige even among free market economists, this lie is at the heart of virtually every university curriculum in the world that touches upon the concept of money, and the chief cause why economists dismiss the gold standard as a valid alternative to the present crisis-prone international monetary system. The idea of challenging a Nobel prize laureate looked utterly pretentious and futile to me.
What has changed my mind is the apocalyptic vision that an irredeemable currency could unexpectedly lose half of its purchasing power so to speak overnight. The word has become flesh in Argentina. In spite of the ridicule that will meet the suggestion that the same can also happen in the United States, the truth remains that all types of money, whether metallic or paper - just as any economic good - will ultimately be valued by the markets at its marginal cost of production which, in case of the Federal Reserve notes, is something pretty close to zero.
Shame on the International Monetary Fund for embracing the fourth lie. It prohibits member countries from fixing the price of gold for the purpose of stabilizing the national currency, allegedly to promote the principle of free markets. The hypocrisy of this position is shown by the fact that the same IMF not only allows but urges member countries to fix the dollar exchange rate in terms of the national currency! In this way was Argentina set up by the IMF as the fall-guy, to be thrown to the wolves at the first sign of dollar weakness.
Straw Man to Knock down
Monetarists set up a straw man in order to knock it down. Fixing the dollar price of gold is not the same as introducing a gold standard. Opening the Mint to gold is. A new monetary unit, say, the Gold Eagle could be adopted. Freed of the heavy baggage of the paper dollar the Gold Eagle would soar and become the guiding star of a new international monetary system. The Federal Reserve banks would be quite busy propping up the irredeemable dollar, so they could be excused and not be burdened with the task of managing the Eagle currency. At any rate, they obviously haven't got the competence to deal with redeemable currency and responsibilities going with it. The Gold Eagle could fend for itself, thank you very much, without the tutelage of a central bank. Bills of exchange drawn on maturing goods moving sufficiently fast to the ultimate cash-paying consumer (so that they will be exchanged for his gold coin in less than 90 days' time) is all the credit needed to support production.
The monetarists are throwing a bone of contention into the debate. It is obvious that fixing the dollar-price of gold is a non-starter. You can never build a consensus that way. Creditors would clamor for a higher, and debtors for a lower price of gold. The monetarists' straw man, the fixed dollar price of gold, is set up to be knocked down in order to discredit the gold standard. But if you really wanted to solve the problems ailing the present monetary system, you would have to use a different approach. You would start with consensus-building. Obviously, there would be a ready consensus on the question of opening the Mint to gold. The one ounce Gold Eagle coin is already in existence. It would become the monetary unit provided that people were given the right to exchange their gold at the Mint for Gold Eagle coinage, free of charge. Note that the people of the United States have been denied this basic constitutional right for the past 70 years. Gold Eagles are minted exclusively for the account of the Treasury. An Act of Congress, mandating Gold Eagles to be minted for the account of anyone tendering the right quantity and quality of the monetary metal, would open the Mint to gold. People would then have a real choice: some may prefer to use gold money, while others can stick to paper money for which to exchange their goods and services, and in which to carry their savings if that is what they want.
The Father of Floating
I am troubled by the thought that Friedman has given his name to popularizing a myth that is a patent lie, namely, the proposition that the gold standard is incompatible with the ideal of a free market economy as it is based on a price-fixing scheme. Perhaps it would be helpful to recall that it was Friedman who in the 1950's first advocated flexible exchange rates for the dollar, and for all other currencies of the world, long before it was possible to suggest in polite company that America should default on its dollar-obligation to its foreign creditors. From a vocal representative of the "lunatic fringe" Friedman became the darling of the establishment once he called for administering the coup de grÃ¢ce to the gold standard for reasons having to do with the "large costs involved in producing the monetary metal". This is not the place to deal with this particular lie, let me just point out in passing that the large costs are not wasted: the value of the Roman aureus survived the Roman Empire, and that of the florin survived the Florentine Republic. These coins are still valuable today.
Friedman is the unquestioned father of the floating (some would say, sinking) dollar. Having learned that the floating dollar was an unmitigated disaster as it has inflicted enormous economic pain on innocent people including pensioners, life insurance holders, widows and orphans, why on earth would the restoration of the constitutionally ordained metallic dollar be an act of price-fixing? The government could open the Mint to gold and leave the dollar free to seek its own level. There is no compelling reason to fix its value in terms of gold. The dollar would in effect be cut adrift, to let market forces decide what its value, if any, should be. After a decades-long orgy of fast-breeding of dollar debt it appears to be the best policy to safeguard the success of the monetary reform to let the Eagle coins start their lives as a national currency without the burden of trillions in debt that cannot possibly be repaid without currency debasement.
No Chicken-and-Egg Problem Here
The easiest way to refute the puerile theory that a gold standard is established by a government edict to fix the price of gold is with reference to the chicken-and-egg problem. Which was first, chicken or egg? Which was first, gold money or paper money? While there is no answer to the first question, the answer to the second is clear. Gold has been around for thousands of years before paper was invented, and it has been circulating as money since time immemorial. It became money not through government edict, but through a spontaneous market-induced evolution in its marketability (or, to use the fashionable word, liquidity). Where is the fixing? Government stamps came later, and served the purpose of certifying weight and purity so as to enable gold coins to circulate by tale rather than by weight, thereby increasing the efficiency of exchange. Gold was money, and money was gold. Paper money when it first appeared was a promise to pay bearer a definite weight of gold of a definite fineness. Therefore it was paper money that was fixed in terms of gold, and not the other way around. To be consistent, the monetarists should protest against the use of paper, rather than gold, as the basis of the monetary system. It is the value of paper that needs to be fixed in terms of gold, to give it monetary qualities! At inception, paper money was valuable because of the redemption it heralded. Nobody in his right mind would suggest that paper money could have circulated in the first place without such an explicit promise of redemption. By the same token, nobody in his right mind would suggest that the first paper money ever to be used could have kept circulating if shortly after its issue the promise had been broken and redemption suspended. There had to be a circulating gold coin first, and then it was possible to issue paper money as a promise to pay gold, which could then circulate with the coin side-by-side, provided that the promise was believed.
Monetary Policy in a Fiat World
It is a separate question what makes the dollar circulate now, decades after the promise to pay a fixed amount of gold has been broken. To answer it we may want to recall that the suspension of redeemability was at first believed to be a temporary measure. Both Roosevelt in March, 1933, and Nixon in August, 1971, went out of their way to stress that the breach of promise involved in their executive order to suspend redemption was meant only for the duration of the emergency and would be lifted as soon as possible. It is not known whether they acted in good faith or bad when they held out hope for future redemption. Be that as it may, what is very well known is that after the American people and foreign central banks learnt that the suspension was to be permanent, the continuing acceptance of the dishonored dollar was made subject to a discount. Worse still, the rate of discount has been, and still is, mounting as time goes by.
Friedman argues that the discount can be kept at a stable level indefinitely, by limiting the rate at which more of the dishonored paper is added to the existing stock. Friedman's theory of inflation, outlined in his paper Monetary Policy in a Fiat World, is predicated upon his unsupported axiom that it is within the power of the government to slow the depreciation of the currency it has dishonored. This is akin to saying that it is within the power of the thief to mitigate the loss caused by the theft, not by returning the loot, but by promising to limit the frequency of future thefts. Inflation (or, more correctly, currency depreciation) is not primarily the consequence of the government's propensity to inflate. It is the direct consequence of an earlier decision to default. The moral issue involved cannot be side-stepped.
It is well-known that insolvent bankers who have defaulted on their promises to pay will try to promote, by hook or crook, their dishonored paper to the status of money, that is, the status of ultimate extinguisher of debt. This activity may certainly prolong the agony. The patient may go into remission a couple of times, but sudden death must ultimately follow. We should keep this in mind when we view the agony of the dollar. Friedman is trying to paper over the cracks that have appeared in the paper-money universe. If you believe it with Friedman that clever manipulation of the rate of increase in the stock of money will put off sudden death indefinitely, then you must also believe that man can create something out of nothing. The first and foremost problem with the dollar is its quality, and logic teaches that this problem cannot be addressed by controlling its quantity. This is the basic fallacy of the monetarists' position: it assumes that defects of quality can be remedied through quantity controls. It does not work for goods; it does not work for currencies either. The dollar is accepted at a progressively higher discount only, not because it has been overissued (which is also true), but above all because it is a dishonored promise, a living memento of the U.S. government having defrauded its taxpayers and creditors.
One further reason explaining why the dishonored dollar still keeps circulating is coercion. The topic of legal tender laws is a large one which I propose to treat in a subsequent paper.
Servile academicians and pusillanimous financial journalists refer to the consequences of deliberate currency debasement by the name 'inflation' with the connotation that it is unavoidable in the same sense as is the fickleness of the weather. The analogy with the weather is disingenuous. The depreciation in the value of the currency is the predictable and inevitable consequence of repudiation. There has never been a case of a default by a bank that was not followed by the progressive, sometimes precipitous, at other times almost imperceptible, deterioration in the purchasing power of the bank's paper - until, finally, the discount went all the way to 100 percent. At that point the banker issuing the dishonored promises always felt an irresistible urge to leave the scene of his business, usually in the garb of a woman, and under the cover of the moonless night. I repeat, it is mendacious to call resumption "price fixing", and to suggest that it violates free market principles. The exact opposite is true, a default on the government's promise to pay is a violation, not only of free market principles, but also of the principle of honorable dealings between government and citizen. Inflation is not inevitable like natural phenomena such as the weather. Inflation is the punishment for breach of contract, for breaking faith with the people.
Lysenkoism - American Style
The current experiment with the irredeemable dollar is no different from previous ones. Mainstream economists fail to acknowledge this, while pretending that the gold dollar was an aberration and the paper dollar is the apotheosis of the free market. They go around the world advising governments "to dollarize" their local currencies, to keep its value fixed in terms of the dollar through the instrument of a currency board (no problem with price-fixing here!) - as it was done in Argentina.
The activities of biologists under the leadership of Lysenko will be to the eternal shame of the profession of biologists in the Soviet-dominated world. (Trofim Denisovich Lysenko, the enfant terrible of Soviet genetics, had those colleagues of his sent to the Gulag who refused to parrot his genetic theories concocted to please Stalin.) In the same way, the sycophantic dollar-promoting activities of mainstream economists will be to the eternal shame of the profession of economists in the American-dominated world.
It is no use pretending that the transition from the gold standard to the regime of irredeemable currency was a result of inevitable progress in monetary affairs. No use arguing metaphorically that "you cannot turn the clock back by returning to a gold standard", or that "the gold standard is like spent toothpaste in that it cannot be put back in the tube". The collapse of the gold standard was not the result of natural forces or evolution as we are asked to believe. It was, rather, the result of government sabotage, in which academicians such as Keynes in the 1930's and Friedman in the 1960's played a major (and hardly creditable) role. It meant a massive disenfranchisement of the savers and the producers of the world, for the benefit of those in power who wanted to aggrandize and perpetuate that power. It was part of a grand design of fraud, deception, plunder, pilferage, and highway robbery, to grab the gold of the people. This is as far from the ideal of the free market as it gets. Producers are coerced into giving up their products, and laborers are forced to sell their services, in exchange for irredeemable promises to pay. Labor contracts are pretty well meaningless as the currency in which wages are negotiated may lose a substantial part of its purchasing power before the end of the contract period, escalator clauses notwithstanding. So much for free markets and labor's right to bargain freely. In due course, the regime of irredeemable currency was consolidated by the unleashing of the "thought police" to control the media, education, and scholarly research. It is because of these Orwellian activities that the public is so woefully misinformed on the subject of the gold standard. Just as scholarly papers debating Lysenko's theory of genetics could not be published in Soviet journals, scholarly papers debating Friedman's theory of inflation cannot be published in American mainstream journals on economics - creating the impression of a consensus among professional economists, and relegating the gold standard to the dustbin of history.
Seigniorage and the Plight of Old Coppernose
Let us return for a moment to times when the king counted it among his powers to dilute the purity of the coin of the realm unilaterally. The king wouldn't even bother telling his subjects what he was doing to their money. The longer they could be kept in ignorance about the matter, the greater was the tribute the king could extract from them. Contemporary scholars theorized that this power of the king was of divine origin. They invented the word "seigniorage" to apply to the cut which the sovereign took of gold delivered to the Mint for coinage. For example, if the Mint exchanged one ounce of pure gold for a coin containing only nine-tenth of an ounce, then seigniorage was said to be 10 percent. The beauty of it was that seigniorage could be increased at the pleasure of the sovereign, at least in the beginning, surreptitiously. The new lighter coins were given an identical appearance to that of the old. Then the king could pass on the light coins as if they were full-bodied, defrauding his subjects and his creditors. However, this new source of revenue which the king's scientists have worked so hard to generate turned out to be ephemeral. The people got wise to the fraud and made all light coins subject to an appropriate discount. Still later, they expected the fraud to be repeated even before the newly crowned king had a chance to try his hands at it. So much for the divine right of the sovereign to cheat his subjects and his creditors.
Poor Old Coppernose, King Henry VIII of England, was so nicknamed by his subjects after the success of royal scientists in figuring out a way how to increase seigniorage to 90 percent. No doubt, his predecessors would have done it if they had known how. But there was a problem. Gold diluted by the addition of 90 percent base alloy no longer looked like gold at all. It was the scientists working in the king's pay who invented "clad coinage" (anticipating the American Mint replacing the Kennedy half-dollar, an immensely popular silver coin, with a clad version in 1968). The coins of Old Coppernose were gold-plated copper coins. But as the plating was rather thin, after a few years of circulation the gold wore off at the most protruding part of the obverse, which was the king's nose, revealing the true nature of the core.
Old Coppernose would have loved to increase seigniorage to 100 percent, but the royal scientists failed to figure out how it could be done. For this breakthrough the world had to wait awhile longer, when the bloody overthrow of the monarchy in France opened the way to irredeemable currencies called assignat and mandat - and to the guillotine. But this is another story.
Wampum or Gold?
Monetarists are fond of repeating that gold is only the last in the long list of items, such as Yap-island stones, cowry shells, wampum, tobacco, and several other commodities which have all served as money at one time or another. This, however, is a bad misconstruction that only a doctrinaire monetarist can put on the nature of the gold standard. The significance of gold is not to be found in its role to limit the rate of growth in the stock of money, but in the fact that it removes the power to create money from the government, and transfers it to the people where it belongs.
Monetarists insist that we need 'experts' to regulate the money supply. Well, we don't. Ordinary people, in providing for their every-day needs, can do the regulation themselves. Whenever they think there is too much money in circulation, they will take some of their gold coins to the goldsmith and have them converted into jewelry and plate. And whenever they think there is too little, people will respond by taking their jewelry and plate to the Mint and have them converted into the coins of the realm. There is great inner wisdom in these arrangements. Just as we don't need the government to regulate the soap supply of the country, we don't need it to mess around with the money supply either. The unfettered market mechanism is all one needs. Government regulation of the money supply is but a fig leaf for pilferage.
America, the Land of Zero Seigniorage
The American colonies, after gaining their independence from England, were determined to set up a government that could not use deceit to impose hidden taxes on the people. They constitutionally ordained a monetary system with zero seigniorage. Providing the people with a reliable monetary system, so that the monetary unit would retain its value indefinitely, was the task of the government. Therefore any expense that may be incurred while maintaining this monetary standard, such as the expense of periodical recoinage of coins that were underweight due to wear and tear, was to be covered by the government out of taxes. This was considered the same type of expenditure as the government had in keeping the highway system in good repair. Mints were established in strategic locations where the people would take their gold to have it converted into coins of the realm. A fee called brassage, to cover the cost of assaying and refining was chargeable, but it should not be confused with seigniorage, which was not. Zero seigniorage is also known as "free coinage". Abolishing seigniorage was a breakthrough of the same order of importance as abolishing taxation without representation.
The philosophy to support the principle of free coinage was that the power to determine the size of the stock of money must be reserved for the people. If this power were to be delegated to elected representatives, to hired civil servants, or to the so-called experts, then it would be an invitation to graft, and would open the door to the disenfranchisement of the people. The power to increase the stock of money is an unlimited power, and the new republic was to have a government of limited and enumerated powers.
Here is the way the people were supposed to exercise their power to regulate the stock of money. If they found that there was too much money in circulation, they could do something about it. They could have the gold coins in their possession melted down and have the monetary metal be fashioned into jewelry and plate, or have it exported as they pleased. If the people found that there was too little money in circulation, then they could do something about that, too. They could take their gold jewelry and plate, or gold they imported from abroad, or gold they dug up in the hills, to the Mint and have it converted into coins of the realm at no charge to themselves (other than brassage to cover the cost of assaying and refining). Exporting and importing the monetary metals either in coined or uncoined form was, of course, free of duties.
It is very important to see that the Mint is not merely another government agency to provide a useful public service. It transcends this in significance and urgency by far. The Mint is one of the pillars supporting the Constitution. It embodies the constitutional principle of separation of powers. In more details, the Mint enforces the principle of separation of the power of government from powers residing with the people. Regulating the stock of money is a power the Constitution did not enumerate for the government to have. The role of the government ends in providing a facility, the Mint, to enable the people to exercise that power. Opening the Mint to gold enforces the provision that the government is to have limited and enumerated powers. Without it the government could assume unlimited power, as it could give itself a revenue no longer derived from taxation but from seigniorage. This revenue could be hidden from public scrutiny. The powers of the government could no longer be enumerated, as the hidden revenue would enable it to embark upon any course of action that may take the fancy of its officers, from warmongering, through social engineering, to hiring assassins.
America, the Land of 100 Percent Seigniorage
As long as the Mint was kept open to gold, the ideal of the American Constitution could be preserved intact. But no sooner had the Mint been closed to gold than the office of the president acquired unlimited power to do as he pleased domestically through social engineering, and beyond the shores of this great country through plotting wars and carving up the world according to his own design.
Poor Old Coppernose racked his brains for a scheme to increase seigniorage from 90 to 100 percent. What escaped him was a piece of cake to Roosevelt. He could increase seigniorage from 0 to 100 percent in one fell swoop, by closing the Mint to gold. To make sure that the people could not protest effectively against this arbitrary trampling on the Constitution, he started by confiscating their gold. It was done through trickery, by appealing to the patriotic feeling of the people. Roosevelt had no cause to worry that he would get stuck with the nickname Old Coppernose. There were no gold plated coins around to show the rotten core of money. He could even turn the nickname 'greenback' of Civil War notoriety from derogatory to laudatory. As he did not want to jeopardize his goals overseas, he maintained zero seigniorage to his foreign clients, while starting to charge 100 percent seigniorage to his domestic slaves. What a contemptuous way for the President to treat the citizens! Foreigners got more favorable terms at the trading post than the taxpayers. Roosevelt could not force the former to take irredeemable promises in exchange for real goods and real services, but he could the latter. He knew taxpayers wouldn't demur. They were helpless. Their gold had just been confiscated.
What a Democratic president started, a Republican would finish off some 30 years later. No one can say that the overthrow of the American Constitution was not the result of a bipartisan effort. In 1971 Nixon "closed the gold window". That eloquent phrase was used instead of the less eloquent but more accurate one to the effect that Nixon unilaterally repudiated America's obligation to redeem in gold short-term dollar obligations held by foreigners. The default was made complete. Since then, foreigners are also charged 100 percent seigniorage on dollars they acquire for use as a monetary reserve. It is doublespeak in extremis to describe the enslavement of the world's savers and producers as purging the market from the last remnants of price-fixing. Monetarists pretend that this shameful deception and highway robbery is the apotheosis of the free market.
Ode to Gold
The Communist Manifesto, published by Marx and Engels in 1848, can be described as the antithesis of the American Constitution. The latter is a document to ensure that the people could keep themselves free from tyranny. The former is a blueprint to show how to herd them back into bondage. Both documents are very specific on money and credit. The American Constitution elevates the principle of free coinage and zero seigniorage to the pedestal as the symbol of individual freedom. The Communist Manifesto describes how free coinage can be stamped out and credit centralized in one hand by the introduction of 100 percent seigniorage. No wonder that Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler embraced with great gusto the idea of centralized credit and irredeemable currency. Roosevelt joined that triumvirate of thieves and murderers. He overthrew the American Constitution replacing its monetary provisions with those of the Communist Manifesto.
I think it will be appropriate if I recite here what I like to call Ayn Rand's "Ode to Gold", written in 1957.
Whenever destroyers appear among men, they start by destroying gold money, for it is man's protection and the base of a moral existence. Destroyers seize gold and leave to its owners a counterfeit pile of paper. This kills all objective standards and delivers men into the arbitrary power of an arbitrary setter of values. Gold was an objective value, an equivalent of wealth produced. Paper money is a mortgage on wealth that does not exist, backed by a gun aimed at those who are expected to produce. Paper money is a check drawn by legal looters upon an account which is not theirs: upon the virtue of the victims. Watch for the day when it bounces, marked: "account overdrawn".
When you have made evil the means of survival, do not expect men to remain good. Do not expect them to stay moral and lose their lives for the purpose of becoming fodder for the immoral. Do not expect them to produce, when production is punished and looting rewarded. Do not ask, "who is destroying the world?" You are.
You stand in the midst of the greatest achievements of the greatest productive civilization and you wonder why it's crumbling around you, while you are damning its life-blood - money. Throughout man's history gold was always seized by looters of one brand or another, whose names changed, but whose methods remained the same: to seize wealth by force and to keep the producers bound, demeaned, defamed, deprived of honor. So long as production is ruled by force and wealth is obtained by conquest, there is little to conquer. Yet through all the centuries of stagnation and starvation, men exalted the looters and despised the producers. The rotter who simpers that he sees no difference between the power of gold and the power of the whip, ought to learn the difference on his own hide - as I think he will.
When gold ceases to be the tool by which men deal with one another, then men become the tools of men. Blood, whips, and guns - or gold. Take your choice - there is no other - and your time is running out.
Finally, here is another quotation from Ayn Rand, this one concerning lies, for the consideration of Professor Friedman and Chairman Greenspan.
"The man who lies to the world is the world's slave from then on. Instead of protecting you, the lie will bring you a more terrible kind of ordeal. Instead of saving your name, it will force you to offer yourself for a public stoning, and to throw the stones by your own hand. There are no white lies, there is only the blackness of destruction, and a white lie is the blackest of all."
• A Stirring in the Long-Suffering Gold Market, by Jonathan Fuerbringer,
The New York Times, Sunday, March 11, 2001
• ATale of Three Lies, by Antal E. Fekete,
• Money Mischief, by Milton Friedman, New York (Harcourt Brace) 1992,
Chapter 10: Monetary policy in a fiat world, p 249 ff.
• Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand, New York (Random House) 1957, p 413 ff
and p 859 ff. The quotations above are slightly edited.