By James Kwak
Have you heard this story before?
The first assets deemed safe were coins made of precious metals. As a technology, coins had many problems: they could be clipped or, debased by the sovereign. They had to be assayed and weighed to determine their value in the best of times; whole currencies would collapse in the worst, when the “fraudulent arts” gained the upper hand. Coins were bulky, too, and vulnerable to theft. But they worked: they were always liquid, their edges could be milled to prevent clipping; and, for long periods of time, coins served as fairly reliable stores of value.
As trade expanded, problems with coins gradually led to the creation of paper money – privately-produced circulating debt in all its early forms: moneys of account; bank notes and bills; goldsmith notes; and merchants’ bills of exchange, all of them convertible on short notice into coins.
That’s David Warsh, paraphrasing Gary Gorton, who’s really just recounting conventional wisdom, handed down from economist to economist since time immemorial.
Except it leaves out the most interesting part of the story.
I’ve been reading Christine Desan’s book Making Money, on the history of money in late medieval and early modern Europe. It’s a fascinating story, full of both meticulous historical detail and compelling conceptual arguments about the relationship between forms of currency, political authority, and the creation of the modern state. Continue reading
Posted in Books
Tagged gold, history, money
This piece of fun weekend reading is contributed by StatsGuy, an occasional commenter and guest contributor on this blog.
It’s become quite popular to talk about the price of gold . . . in blogs, the press, at dinner parties. The latest topic of debate is not about the price of gold as a commodity, but about gold as the one and only king money. The basic argument is that 5,000 years of tradition will overwhelm the tyranny of modern government and the fiat printing press. The barbaric relic will defeat socialism, fascism, Obama-ism, and restore liberty to the world, after a terrible economic collapse in which gold-owning visionaries become fabulously wealthy.
Perhaps they are correct—or perhaps not. I don’t know what will happen in 10 years. However, unless civilization utterly collapses (which is what gold hoarders seem to want), the gold bubble will collapse. And I don’t mean the 10 year “bubble” . . . I mean the 5,000 year bubble.
This claim might sound crazy, but it’s quite easy to defend, for the simple reason that there is too darn much gold. Gold enthusiasts will note that you can’t just print gold like fiat paper. They will note that high quality mines are failing, and argue that we’ve passed “peak gold”.
The argument for the collapse has little to do with terrestrial mine quality (although massive amounts of money and new technology are flowing into exploration, long term mine development and extending the life of existing mines). The argument merely requires that gold price ultimately responds to supply.
Posted in Guest Post
By Simon Johnson. As prepared for the NYT’s Room for Debate – for the context and the whole discussion, see this link.
In a world with so many instabilities, there is an understandable search for something that offers a stable value – preferably something that cannot be affected by the whim of government or the latest scheme of a central bank. Unfortunately, this search proves just as illusory as the pursuits of alchemists in pre-modern times; there is no magic to gold.
For international economic transactions, proposing any kind of return to the gold standard is equivalent to wanting more fixed exchange rates, i.e., moving away from market-determined rates and returning to the system, at least in part, to how it operated before 1971.
But it is hard to imagine how this would help with regard to the major currencies, which are again the subject of controversy today. The main issues in the US are high unemployment, an unstable financial system, and longer-term issues around the budget. How exactly would gold help on any dimension? Advocates of a modified gold standard argue that this would serve as a form of anchor to the system – but in the 1930s it proved to be an anchor tied around the neck of some countries, including the United States. Nobody needs the kind of “stability” associated with the Great Depression. Continue reading