Bad Ideas About Money and Bitcoin

by Keith Weiner, Acting Man:

How We Got Used to Fiat Money

Most false or irrational ideas about money are not new. For example, take the idea that government can just fix the price of one monetary asset against another. Some people think that we can have a gold standard by such a decree today. This idea goes back at least as far as the Coinage Act of 1792, when the government fixed 371.25 grains of silver to the same value as 24.75 grains of gold, or a ratio of 15 to 1. This caused problems because the market valued silver a bit lower than that.

The gold-silver ratio from 1800 to 1915. In the 1870s, numerous nations around the world dropped bimetallism in favor of a gold standard (France was a noteworthy exception). Thereafter it quickly became obvious that silver had been vastly overvalued at the official exchange ratio. It was essentially a subsidy for silver miners. Once a pure gold standard was adopted, mild consumer price deflation became the norm, as economic productivity grew faster than the supply of gold. Contrary to what virtually all central bankers nowadays assert, this had no negative effects on the economy whatsoever. On the contrary, the four decades following the adoption of the gold standard produced the biggest and most equitable real per capita growth the US has ever seen – such growth rates were never again recaptured. Of course, at the time government spending represented between 3% to 4% of total economic output, i.e., government was but a footnote in most people’s lives. The reason why governments subsequently sabotaged the gold standard was precisely that they wanted to grow without limit. [PT]

The gold-silver ratio from 1800 to 1915. In the 1870s, numerous nations around the world dropped bimetallism in favor of a gold standard (France was a noteworthy exception). Thereafter it quickly became obvious that silver had been vastly overvalued at the official exchange ratio. It was essentially a subsidy for silver miners. Once a pure gold standard was adopted, mild consumer price deflation became the norm, as economic productivity grew faster than the supply of gold. Contrary to what virtually all central bankers nowadays assert, this had no negative effects on the economy whatsoever. On the contrary, the four decades following the adoption of the gold standard produced the biggest and most equitable real per capita growth the US has ever seen – such growth rates were never again recaptured. Of course, at the time government spending represented between 3% to 4% of total economic output, i.e., government was but a footnote in most people’s lives. The reason why governments subsequently sabotaged the gold standard was precisely that they wanted to grow without limit. [PT]

So people were happy to bring their silver to the U.S. Mint to be coined. Silver had a higher value as a coin than it did in the market, and it was the opposite for gold. Gresham’s Law teaches us that if two monies must be treated by law as the same value, then the one of lower value will circulate and the one of higher value will be hoarded. This put the fledgling America on a de facto silver standard.

Eight Spanish silver reales, or “pieces of eight” which consisted of 387 grains of pure silver (the coin on the upper right is a Mexican piece of eight, with Chinese chop marks). These coins were minted by the Spanish Empire since 1598 and were of the same size and weight as the German Thaler, which in turn was standardized across all German territories since the 15th century. These coins were legal tender in the US until 1857 and for a long time were the by far most widely used coin. The Coinage Act of 1792 established that the new US dollar was to be equal in value to Spain’s pieces of eight, but people soon found out that the US Mint used a slightly different standard of fineness (0.9 instead of 0.8924), which meant that about 1% more silver was needed to mint a dollar. This made them reluctant to bring silver to the mint, hence the Spanish coins continued to dominate in daily life. Spanish reales were actually the first world currency, and it worked splendidly for almost 300 years (incidentally, over the time of its existence, this was the least debased coin in the Western world, which explains its popularity). People would cut the coin into 8 pieces (“bits”) of equal size for smaller transactions and to make change – prices on US stock exchanges were quoted in fractions based on these 8 bits for a very long time. The United States Assay Commission which kept an eye on the quality of the production of the US Mint was one of the few bureaucracies to ever be disbanded – in 1980. This is actually testament to the stickiness of bureaucracies – gold coins had been out of circulation since 1933 and silver coins since 1965 (a rudely debased half dollar existed until 1970).  [PT]

Eight Spanish silver reales, or “pieces of eight” which consisted of 387 grains of pure silver (the coin on the upper right is a Mexican piece of eight, with Chinese chop marks). These coins were minted by the Spanish Empire since 1598 and were of the same size and weight as the German Thaler, which in turn was standardized across all German territories since the 15th century. These coins were legal tender in the US until 1857 and for a long time were the by far most widely used coin. The Coinage Act of 1792 established that the new US dollar was to be equal in value to Spain’s pieces of eight, but people soon found out that the US Mint used a slightly different standard of fineness (0.9 instead of 0.8924), which meant that about 1% more silver was needed to mint a dollar. This made them reluctant to bring silver to the mint, hence the Spanish coins continued to dominate in daily life. Spanish reales were actually the first world currency, and it worked splendidly for almost 300 years (incidentally, over the time of its existence, this was the least debased coin in the Western world, which explains its popularity). People would cut the coin into 8 pieces (“bits”) of equal size for smaller transactions and to make change – prices on US stock exchanges were quoted in fractions based on these 8 bits for a very long time. The United States Assay Commission which kept an eye on the quality of the production of the US Mint was one of the few bureaucracies to ever be disbanded – in 1980. This is actually testament to the stickiness of bureaucracies – gold coins had been out of circulation since 1933 and silver coins since 1965 (a rudely debased half dollar existed until 1970).  [PT]

Or, bad ideas have their roots in historical precedent but something is lost (or sabotaged) along the way. Back in 1792, there was no question that money meant gold and silver. There was no question that, when you deposited money at a bank, you had a right to get the same amount of money back. However, if each bank had a different unit of deposit, it would be hard to understand if someone said “I will pay you ten dollars”. Is that ten Road Runner Bank Dollars or ten Bank of Wile Coyote dollars?

The Coinage Act standardized the unit, but it did not change the rights of depositors or the obligations of banks. However, today, many people think that the government can, post hoc, change the definition of a unit and thereby change the value of everyone’s debt obligations and bank balances (and presumably cause a repricing of every extant asset).

We see this in many discussions of China’s future monetary policy. Many gold bugs have said that China will announce a gold-backed yuan. No one can know what a government may do in the future, but we can say in principle that it is impossible to fix the price of gold in yuan (or dollars or anything else). We can say that it won’t work if they try to change the value of the yuan by simple changes of law.

Another bad idea today traces itself back centuries. People use the paper bank note (and now electronic credit) as the equivalent of money for most situations, such as making a payment. Back in 1792, everyone understood that the paper note was redeemable for money. If you went to a bank, and pushed a twenty dollar bill over the counter, you would get just over 1 ounce in gold coins.

A $5,000 and a $50 gold certificate issued by the US treasury in 1882 and 1928. These bearer certificates were in use from 1882 to 1933 and were freely convertible into gold coins at a fixed rate of $20.67 per troy ounce. The treasury began to issue gold certificates in 1865 already, but before 1882 the depositor was identified on the certificate by name. The background to this is that US greenbacks, a fiat money used to finance the civil war, only came back into line with the gold value of the dollar at around 1879. Once the treasury started to redeem these so-called United States Notes in gold again, gold certificates were introduced for general circulation as well. [PT]

A $5,000 and a $50 gold certificate issued by the US treasury in 1882 and 1928. These bearer certificates were in use from 1882 to 1933 and were freely convertible into gold coins at a fixed rate of $20.67 per troy ounce. The treasury began to issue gold certificates in 1865 already, but before 1882 the depositor was identified on the certificate by name. The background to this is that US greenbacks, a fiat money used to finance the civil war, only came back into line with the gold value of the dollar at around 1879. Once the treasury started to redeem these so-called United States Notes in gold again, gold certificates were introduced for general circulation as well. [PT]

So long as the banks are trustworthy, few people have a reason to redeem their paper and withdraw their coins. So most become comfortable with the idea of paper bills. They may even begin to think of it as money. However, the concept of money cannot be entirely forgotten, so long as redemption occurs every day. If you redeem paper to get gold, can you call the paper “money”? If the paper is money, and you’re turning it in to get gold, then what is the word for the gold? In a system where redemption is possible, people are clear that the paper is currency and the gold is the money. No one would imagine redeeming money for … __________? (we literally cannot think of what word would go in the blank.)

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