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Free Markets, Free People
Dead Ed, the Collapse, and eBay Saves Us All
My first reaction to Pres. Obama’s speech last night was depression. Here were the Democrats giving the president standing O’s for completely converting the Republic into a social democracy. I mentioned that on Facebook, and one of my readers said it reminded him of Amidala’s line from Star Wars Episode III: “So this is how liberty ends…with thunderous applause.”
But on more careful review, I find that I am not, in fact, depressed over the long-term. Indeed, last night’s speech seems to me not to herald the beginning of a new era for big government and socialism, but rather the last gasp of a dying ideology.
We are, I think, at the cusp of a new era, but it isn’t the one that Pres. Obama and his acolytes in the Congress are thinking it is. Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans, it is clear, have any idea about what is happening. Very few people do. I am going to try and explain something very complicated, and do so very simply, and as briefly as I can. So, with the realization that all simplifications are inevitably wrong in some particular, let me explain.
“Ed’s dead, baby. Ed’s dead.”*
We stand now, I think, in a very historically similar position to the one described by Barbara Tuchman, in the beginning chapter of her monumental work on the outbreak of Word War I, The Guns of August:
So gorgeous was the spectacle on the May morning of 1910 when 9 kings rode in the funeral of Edward VII of England that the crowd, waiting in hushed and black-clad awe, could not keep back gasps of admiration. In scarlet and blue and green and purple, 3 by 3 the sovereigns rode though the palace gates, with plumed helmets, gold braid, crimson sashes, and jeweled orders flashing in the sun. After them came 5 heirs apparent, 40 more imperial or royal highnesses, 7 queens, and a scattering of special ambassadors from uncrowned countries. Together they represented 70 nations in the greatest assemblage of royalty and rank ever gathered in one place and, of its kind, the last. The muffled tongue of Big Ben tolled 9 by the clock as the cortege left the palace, but on history’s clock it was sunset, and the sun of the old world was setting in a dying blaze of splendor never to be seen again.
Four years later, the world order of 1815-1914 was drowned in fire and blood. The Age of Royalty was over, and the Age of Democracy had begun. I believe that Pres. Obama’s speech of last night may very well be the historical equivalent to Edward VII’s funeral.
Ever since it began in late 2007, a blog called Fabius Maximus has been arguing that we are watching the decline and fall–indeed, collapse–of our current economic and financial system. A précis of the argument can be found here, and a more comprehensive archive can be found here. Just as the black-clad crowds lining the streets of the capitol of the British Empire on the morning of May 20, 1910 might have found it inconceivable that their generation would witness the collapse of both the European geopolitical regime, and, ultimately, the British Empire itself, so it may be inconceivable to us that we are witnessing the collapse of the Post-WWII economic and political regime. But I believe it is nevertheless true.
“MONEY! Doesn’t it make you feel good just to say that, Jerry?”
Let me start by explaining what money is. Money is a medium of exchange, that is, it is an object of some kind that I can exchange for goods and service, rather than trying to barter with people to obtain what I need. It may consist of elaborately carved cowry shells, tiny beads painstakingly stitched to strips of leather, round pieces of metal with the image of guys named Julius or Claudius hammered into them, or little pieces of high-quality paper that say “Federal Reserve Note” on them.
But whatever it is, money has certain minimal characteristics. It must be convertible, i.e., if I do a job for you, I have to be willing to accept it as payment, and whoever I buy bread or clothes from has to be willing to accept it in exchange, too. It also has to be difficult to replicate, so that when I accept it, I am reasonably assured that it is the genuine article.
For nearly all of recorded history “money” has been synonymous with gold or silver. And right up till the late 18th century, it was more or les the perfect money. It was intrinsically valuable, in that raw silver or gold was as easily convertible as hammered or minted coins. It was also practically impossible to counterfeit, the best efforts of alchemist to convert dross into gold notwithstanding. It was also relatively rare, and it difficult to obtain new supplies of it without intensive–and extremely expensive–mining operations.
Additionally, there simply wasn’t much to buy. Most people grew their own food, produced their own clothes from flax or wool, and built their own houses by hand. Money was essentially a luxury, and it bought mainly luxury goods for fat cats. Kings could raise and equip armies with it. Merchants could buy nice clothes. But for the most part, money was a tool for use by the rich, and by the relatively few urban dwellers. And, as such, gold or silver was perfect for that level of economic activity.
By the 19th century, though, there were lots more things to buy, and lots more city dwellers, and that trend was increasing rapidly. Hard money became…problematic. The thing about having a hard currency based in gold or silver is that, at the end of the day, whether you run a fully convertible gold standard, or some sort of fractional reserve system, the size of the money supply is always constrained by the amount of gold or silver on hand.
If the economy takes off on a tear, it’s extremely difficult to expand the money supply to meet the demand. When the supply dries up, the economy just shudders to a quick stop, because nobody has enough spare money to fund more expansion. So the economy collapses until it reaches equilibrium with the available money supply, and the cycle starts again. Look at a chart of US economic activity in the 19th century and you see it’s a system of booms and busts, which were far steeper than any we’ve seen since the depression. So the fundamental problem with a gold standard is that it’s relatively inflexible when used by a vibrant, diverse economy. When everybody needs gold, and the demand is unpredictable, gold is very difficult to use unless you’re willing to live with severe booms and busts.
The Great Depression was the death knell for the gold-based world economic system. Those nations that jettisoned gold the fastest, recovered the most. Of course, WWII intervened in the depression, so it took a decade or so to get back to the business of commerce–as opposed to the business of building things to kill Nazis. But, by 1944, everyone–on the Allied side, at least–had recovered enough breathing room to meet at Bretton Woods, NH, and hammer out a new economic system.
What they came up with was a system of fiat currencies, all freely convertible in the FOREX market.
Now, governments could adjust their money supplies appropriately by printing more money or less of it, and taxing their populations more leniently or more severely, as needed. This is the system most of us have grown up with…and it’s dying.
It’s dying because of something innate in human nature that the gold standard was better equipped to deal with: the urge to loot the system.
It’s an urge that has always been there. Sometimes it has been the result of intentional government action to cheapen the currency. If you were, say, the king of Persia, you didn’t need to consult the priests of Ahura Mazda to know that if you changed from using 10 grams of gold per coin, to using only 9 grams per coin, you could stretch your gold supply by 10%. You could then take the extra gold, and buy yourself a nice hat. Or use the extra gold to make one. Whatever.
Of course, people would notice this pretty quickly, and items that used to cost 9 gold pieces would cost 10 pieces–inflation!–but because gold had an intrinsic value, the same weight of gold could be exchanged. It was still pernicious, of course, but because gold had an intrinsic value–and because the supply of gold was relatively inflexible–it wasn’t usually seriously pernicious.
Sometimes, the urge to loot the system has been done by private individuals, who figured out that if they shaved a bit off the edges of their gold pieces, they could accrue enough gold shavings to buy themselves a nice hat, too. This, by the way, is why when we began minting coins instead of hammering them out. They were minted with milled edges, making shaving attempts immediately obvious.
By the 19th century, the looting attempts became widespread, populist movements, like the “Free Silver” movement. At the time, gold was real money. If you took a bunch of gold to a Minting facility, the mint would return you an equal weight in gold coins–minus a nominal minting fee. After huge silver deposits were discovered at places like the Comstock Lode, populist agitation began for minting silver in the same way, at a ratio of 20 ounces of silver for 1 ounce of gold. The massive amount of silver floating around would, of course, have made this an extremely inflationary policy, and the farming and borrowing interests would have benefited by paying off bills for less than they had borrowed…enabling themselves to use the extra saving to buy a nice hat.
But during the First Age of Money, the looting was always constrained by the fact that gold had an intrinsic value, and that the supply of gold was inelastic. There were, therefore built-in constraints to the looting impulse.
When the Bretton Woods Agreement launched the Second Age of Money, it solved the problem of the inelasticity of the money supply, and enabled monetary authorities to fine-tune the money supply in response to economic activity. That was a good thing in the sense that it flattened–although did not eliminate–the business cycle fluctuations.
But the bad thing was that it completely removed any physical restraint on the money supply. It depended on governments and monetary authorities to exercise self-restraint, rather than impersonal, externally imposed constraints. The result has been 65 years of continually expanding credit, more or less constant inflation to a greater or lesser degree, and unrestrained spending and borrowing.
Governments–and their democratic (small “d”) constituencies quickly learned that they could loot the system. Social insurance, medical care, military expansion…whatever the Big Idea of the minute was, we could have it. And if we didn’t want to pay the taxes to the government to pay for it–and, mostly, we didn’t–we could simply borrow it. We could obtain a whole bunch of little green pieces of paper now in exchange for a promise we’d pay back more little green pieces of paper sometime in the future. In the meantime, we could buy all the hats we wanted!
But now, we are obligated to pay back various people about fifty trillion pieces of green paper. Unfortunately, the entire household worth of everyone in the country is worth about forty trillion pieces of green paper.
How can the current economic and financial system possibly be considered solvent at this point? How will re-expanding the cycle of debt re-invigorate it?
No, we’ve had our fun. We got to loot the system for 65 years. Now, the hat bill is coming due.
I suspect we’ll pay the hat bill the same way that Germany repaid their war reparations debt after WWI. “Hey, you remember that reparations bill for 3 billion marks that we’re supposed to pay next week? Yeah. I just wanted to let you know that we’ve sent that order off to the printers, this week, and we should have that printed up for you by Tuesday.”
The result was massive hyperinflation, the collapse of credit, and 5 years of compete economic stagnation, serious economic pain, severe unemployment…and the ability to start over in the mid-20s with a clean balance sheet. Clean enough, in fact, that by 1936 Germany had more or less completely emerged from the Great Depression, while the employment rate in the United States hovered at around 18%.
What Pres. Obama is proposing may result in nothing more than additional spending that helps bring about the collapse of the Post-WWII economic regime, while at the same time providing–temporarily–a social safety net that will provide some help as we pass through a difficult transitional period.
“I was there at the dawn of the Third Age of Mankind…”
OK. Maybe it’s not that grandiose, but I think we are seeing the dawn of the Third Age of Money.
No one in the government realizes how the economic world is changing. So their proposed solutions are likely to be exposed over time as ineffective and, perhaps even counter-productive. The credibility of governments around the world is now invested in staving off an economic collapse. When their failures become evident, and their “solutions” are exposed as fantasies, that credibility will collapse. Who will want to buy government bonds, or use worthless government money? Who will trust the governments who lead us into the economic abyss?
Unfortunately, rather that realizing that we are entering a transition, and trying to discover how to shepherd us through that transition, they are invested in preserving the dying system of government-regulated money supply and credit. And even if they realized that we were in a transitional period, they would still do nothing about it because it would require voluntarily releasing their power over the economy.
Governments have always been in charge of money; determining what money is, how it will be exchanged, how new money will be created, etc. In part, this is traditional, in that only government had the resources and ability to fund and oversee mining and exploration activities, regulate what legal tender consisted of, and all of the other monetary functions. There simply were no other large organizations in existence to perform those tasks.
It wasn’t until the 17th century that organizations began to emerge that could begin performing those tasks, and not until the 18th century that it became practical. Private money of various types began to sprout up everywhere. 18th-century America was, for a time, replete every decent-sized bank issuing its own currency based on deposits.
Eventually, the Federal government cracked down on that private money, not so much from jealousy of the government’s role as the issuer of currency, but because private banks suffered from the same tendency to loot the system, issuing more and more inflated currency until it was worthless, and they ended up wiping out their depositors in the collapse as their obligations came due. There were some solid money banks of course, but the spectacular failures of so many private currency attempts led the government to tax them so heavily that private currency issuance became uneconomic. Governments may not have been perfect, but the constraints of the gold system meant that they didn’t fail as completely and spectacularly as private banks did.
What was missing in private currency of the time, and what has been missing in the current post-WWII financial system is feedback. Yes, there is some, but it takes a long time to filter into the monetary authority, and is derived indirectly from statistics on economic activity, rather than by any sort of direct observation. The Fed raises interest rates today, for instance, and it takes around eight months to observe the indirect effects of the monetary policy change. This is why the role of the Fed, has often been described as steering a car by looking through the rear-view mirror. Based on seeing where you’ve been, you make decisions about where you must go. That may be a form a feedback, but it is so separated in time from the inputs that it’s an inherently unstable system.
By the same token, what killed depositors in banks that issued private money was a lack of feedback. It wasn’t possible to see that bankers were looting the system in time to withdraw your money.
We call this lack of feedback asymmetrical information. We’ve never been able to even approach the ability to have full information about what a bank or government is doing that may affect the money supply, or economic activity as a whole. We’ve never been able to see all sides of the story, as it were. So, we’ve had to more or less leave it in the hands of government, simply because governments have been the only organizations with the size and scope to reduce, even partially, the problem of feedback.
So, it seems pretty hopeless, doesn’t it? The financial world we’ve grown up with is collapsing under the sheer weight of looting. If governments can’t do it, and a return to the gold standard can’t do it, then where are we? At the edge of another dark age?
I foresee the rise of private money once again, and returning in such force as to negate the government’s role in the economy. In fact, the pieces for creating the Third Age of Money are already there.
The Internet will be the platform for the new money. But it’s just the platform; the communications media. The actual objects that make up the Third Age of Money will almost be located in cyberspace.
First, there is encryption. In the not-too-distant future, you will go online with a persona, i.e., an online identity with a unique, highly encrypted digital signature. No more logging in with different user names and passwords at 100 different web sites. Your persona will be uniquely identified as you through the use of 4096-bit or 8192-bit public key encryption. Your persona will be impossible to forge or duplicate. It will be unique. Your “bank” and your “money” will be similarly encrypted.
Second, is your ATM/debit card. It won’t be exactly the same, of course. It will be far more secure, probably through the use of biological identification systems to verify authorization, such as retinal scans. It will be linked directly to your persona’s bank account.
Third, is the ability of all the major banks and credit card companies to do online transactions, and to convert one system of private money to another at a publicly known exchange rate. So, you can pay directly to your account–or withdraw from it–in Discover Dollars, or MasterBucks, or Credit Suisse Francs. Or perhaps there might even be a universally acknowledged unit of currency–the “Credit”–that all the private companies agree to use.
But, the most important element of creating a reliable private money system that is resistant to looting the system is feedback. The reduction of asymmetrical information. And that exists, too. eBay has been using it for years. Indeed, in no small way, the system implemented by eBay may be a key element of our future.
Imagine a system where, every time I do business with your persona, I rate your reliability, and it doesn’t matter of the persona is an individual or a bank…or a government. Every day, millions of people who do transactions in MasterCard can rate the reliability and value of the MasterBucks system. Private companies like Standard and Poors or Moody’s would not only rate MasterBucks, but consumers would rate the reliability of S&P or Moody’s judgments.
And not only are the bank’s persona’s being rated, but your persona is as well, by every one who does business with it.
Put them all together and you have a secure form of private money that’s convertible, impossible to forge, and is subject to constant feedback about its value and performance. Does MasterBucks have too high a debt ratio or too much exposure to non-performing loans at MasterCard? No problem. It’s instantly convertible to Credit Suisse Franks. And the conversion rate lowers MasterBucks reliability ratings even more, signaling the company to correct its course, or lose its depositors.
Think of the implications this has for taxation, especially income taxation. Keep all your money in Credit Suisse Francs, say, and the US government will never even be able to see a record of your deposits or withdrawals. How will they track your income? And who will want to pay governments that failed to prevent the collapse for…well…anything? Who will accede to the demand for money by governments that repudiated their debts, and destroyed the life savings of millions?
I can foresee huge implications for the future that are very pro-liberty. In the long term. In the short term, though, if I’m right, and the current financial system is collapsing we will be in for a very rough decade or so. Very rough indeed.
*Apologies to Quentin Tarantino.