The True Gold Standard (Second Edition)
Key Writings: Shelton on the Gold Standard
The willingness to work for the sake of future prosperity is a universal human quality, but people must believe there is a link between effort and reward.
The euro is beset with fiscal calamities that threaten its downfall, and markets in the U.S. are roiled by uncertainty over the government’s financial regulatory legislation. But don’t worry. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner meets with European finance officials today to discuss the economic situation. According to a Treasury Department statement, they will focus on “measures being taken to restore global confidence and financial stability.” So everything is under control.
What government policy makers in the U.S. and Europe fail to realize is that far from being seen as capable of delivering economic salvation, they are increasingly perceived as primary contributors to global financial ruin. Whether it’s the fiscal recklessness of spendthrift politicians or the refusal of government officials to acknowledge failings—distorting mortgage markets through Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, skewing assessments of credit risk through loose monetary policy—the influence of government over the real economy is proving disastrous.
No wonder people are flocking to gold as they flee government-supplied money. Neither the dollar nor the euro inspires much global confidence; despite the dollar’s relative safe-haven status, neither currency holds out the promise of financial stability.
How can the real economy, i.e., the private sector, where genuine wealth is actually produced, continue to function in the absence of reliable money? Europeans will be wary of the euro from now on, given that the European Central Bank has relaxed its standards for safeguarding monetary integrity by absorbing Greek debt. Meanwhile, the perilous fiscal condition of the U.S. has convinced many that our government will resort to future inflation to reduce its own untenable debt burden.
Unprecedented spending, unending fiscal deficits, unconscionable accumulations of government debt: These are the trends that are shaping America's financial future. And since loose monetary policy and a weak U.S. dollar are part of the mix, apparently, it's no wonder people around the world are searching for an alternative form of money in which to calculate and preserve their own wealth.
It may be too soon to dismiss the dollar as an utterly debauched currency. It still is the most used for international transactions and constitutes over 60% of other countries' official foreign-exchange reserves. But the reputation of our nation's money is being severely compromised.
Funny how words normally used to address issues of morality come to the fore when judging the qualities of the dollar. Perhaps it's because the U.S. has long represented the virtues of democratic capitalism. To be "sound as a dollar" is to be deemed trustworthy, dependable, and in good working condition.
It used to mean all that, anyway. But as the dollar is increasingly perceived as the default mechanism for out-of-control government spending, its role as a reliable standard of value is destined to fade. Who wants to accumulate assets denominated in a shrinking unit of account? Excess government spending leads to inflation, and inflation plays dollar savers for patsies—both at home and abroad.
A return to sound financial principles in Washington, D.C., would signal that America still believes it can restore the integrity of the dollar and provide leadership for the global economy. But for all the talk from the Obama administration about the need to exert fiscal discipline—the president's 10-year federal budget is subtitled "A New Era of Responsibility: Renewing America's Promise"—the projected budget numbers anticipate a permanent pattern of deficit spending and vastly higher levels of outstanding federal debt.
Let's go back to the gold standard.
If the very idea seems at odds with what is currently happening in our country -- with Congress preparing to pass a massive economic stimulus bill that will push the fiscal deficit to triple the size of last year's record budget gap -- it's because a gold standard stands in the way of runaway government spending.
Under a gold standard, if people think the paper money printed by government is losing value, they have the right to switch to gold. Fiat money -- i.e., currency with no intrinsic worth that government has decreed legal tender -- loses its value when government creates more than can be absorbed by the productive real economy. Too much fiat money results in inflation -- which pools in certain sectors at first, such as housing or financial assets, but ultimately raises prices in general.
Inflation is the enemy of capitalism, chiseling away at the foundation of free markets and the laws of supply and demand. It distorts price signals, making retailers look like profiteers and deceiving workers into thinking their wages have gone up. It pushes families into higher income tax brackets without increasing their real consumption opportunities.
In short, inflation undermines capitalism by destroying the rationale for dedicating a portion of today's earnings to savings. Accumulated savings provide the capital that finances projects that generate higher future returns; it's how an economy grows, how a society reaches higher levels of prosperity. But inflation makes suckers out of savers.
This is the way the world ends
-- T.S. Eliot
The world is not ending. Despite the wrenching turmoil in global financial markets and morbid allusions to the death throes of capitalism, it ain't over. Not until people quit believing in themselves, not until people quit believing in a better future.
But the whimpering is real, and justified, because it hurts to have your world come crashing down. And global financial markets are definitely crashing, even when the impact is momentarily softened through massive injections of artificial money -- "artificial" because the fiat money does not represent a store of genuine value but rather an airy government claim to future wealth yet to be created.
In the aftermath of this financial catastrophe, as we sort out causes and assign blame, with experts offering various solutions -- More regulation! Less complex financial instruments! -- let's not lose sight of the most fundamental component of finance. No credit-default swap, no exotic derivative, can be structured without stipulating the monetary unit of account in which its value is calculated. Money is the medium of exchange -- the measure, the standard, the store of value -- which defines the very substance of the economic contract between buyer and seller. It is the basic element, the atom of financial matter.
It is the money that is broken.
These days, we don't often refer to the validity of the money itself but rather to "monetary policy" and how the Federal Reserve has managed to calibrate the money supply to economic activity over the last two decades. There are plenty of critiques; the most pointed ones blame former Fed chief Alan Greenspan for keeping interest rates too low, too long.
If patience is a virtue, Alan Greenspan is a saint. For more than three decades he has endeavored to guide the nation toward sound money -- first as a radical intellectual, then as an business economist and presidential adviser, and currently as chairman of Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. His critics on the left seem unable to comprehend the destructive consequences of irresponsible fiscal policy and accommodative monetary policy. His critics on the right simply cannot appreciate the long-term perspective of Greenspan, a man who argued powerfully in the 1960s that "gold and economic freedom are inseparable" and who has steadfastly, albeit slowly, continued to pursue the realization of his intellectual ideals in the economic sphere. Arbitrary and capricious, he is not.
The benefits of a balanced budget
Instead of taking potshots at Greenspan reinforcing the claims of those who maliciously accuse him of waging a war against workers, advocates of sound money should be working with the Fed chairman toward the ultimate goal of price stability and restoration of a gold-based monetary system. It ain't gonna happen overnight; that is the fundamental lesson to be drawn from Greenspan's languorous pace. But with the achievement of a balanced budget agreement, we are making real progress.
Balancing the budget is a moral imperative because it means the government cannot indulge in excessive spending and then abuse its sovereign monetary authority by financing chronic deficits with increasing levels of federal debt -- a practice that results in inflation. Supply-siders who minimize the importance of a balanced budget do not show proper respect for the teachings of economist Ludwig von Mises, who observed:
Inflation is a policy. And a policy can be changed. Therefore, there is no reason to give in to inflation. If one regards inflation as an evil, then one has to stop inflating. One has to balance the budget of the government. Of course, public opinion must support this; the intellectuals must help the people to understand. Given the support of public opinion, it is certainly possible for the people's elected representatives to abandon the policy of inflation.
BY JUDY SHELTON: