Should the U.S. Monetary System return to the Gold Standard?

Posted by PITHOCRATES - May 11th, 2011

The Gold Standard versus Government Spending

One time presidential candidate Steve Forbes thinks the U.S. may be ready to  return to the gold standard.  Like it was before Nixon took us off of the gold standard.  Back then dollars were worth gold.  And government spending wasn’t that easy (see Forbes Predicts U.S. Gold Standard Within 5 Years by Paul Dykewicz posted 5/11/2011 on Human Events).

Such a move would help to stabilize the value of the dollar, restore confidence among foreign investors in U.S. government bonds, and discourage reckless federal spending, the media mogul and former presidential candidate said.  The United States used gold as the basis for valuing the U.S. dollar successfully for roughly 180 years before President Richard Nixon embarked upon an experiment to end the practice in the 1970s that has contributed to a number of woes that the country is suffering from now, Forbes added.

When President Nixon entered office the U.S. Government promised to exchange U.S. dollars for gold at an exchange rate of $35 per ounce.  Such a ‘gold standard’ made governments responsible.  Because if a government printed too much money, they would devalue the dollar.  But not the gold.  If they doubled the amount of money in circulation, the market exchange rate would be about $70 per ounce.  Yet the U.S., if they honored their promised exchange rate, would still have to exchange gold for dollars at $35 an ounce.  A responsible government would not do this.  Because this would make U.S. gold a bargain.  And it would fly out of the U.S. treasury in the ultimate fire sale. 

This is what happened.  The Vietnam War and the Great Society cost the U.S. government dearly.  When Nixon took over, he did not want to cut spending on either.  So as costs went up, he printed more money.  Creating that great gold fire sale.  So, before the U.S. lost all of its gold, Nixon stopped honoring the $35 per ounce exchange rate, decoupling the dollar from gold.  Solved one problem.  The gold flow stopped.  But without anything preventing them from printing more money, they printed more money.  Which gave the U.S. double digit inflation and interest rates.  Because their money was worth less and less as they printed more and more.

When Nixon decoupled the dollar from gold he said we were all Keynesians now.  The government was going to try and fix the country’s economic troubles with government spending.  It didn’t work.  The treasury secretary under the Carter administration, Paul Volcker, started the turn around to responsible monetary policy.  Ronald Reagan continued it.  Even wanted to return the country to the gold standard.  But that was something spend-happy politicians could never have.  So they didn’t.  And remain on a fiat money system to this day.  And continue to print more money to continue reckless and irresponsible spending.

If the gold standard had been in place in recent years, the value of the U.S. dollar would not have weakened as it has and excessive federal spending would have been curbed, Forbes told HUMAN EVENTS.  The constantly changing value of the U.S. dollar leads to marketplace uncertainty and consequently spurs speculation in commodity investing as a hedge against inflation.

I don’t know about that.  It didn’t work in the Seventies.

With a stable currency, it is “much harder” for governments to borrow excessively, Forbes said.  Without lax Federal Reserve System monetary policies that led to the printing of too much money, the housing bubble would not have been nearly as severe, he added.

Which is, of course, why we had lax monetary policy.  Government policies since World War II encouraged home ownership.  Because home ownership drove the economy.  It takes economic activity to build houses.  And it takes economic activity to furnish houses.  No other crushing debt that you can saddle on a person can have such economic benefits.

The problem is that some just thought more was better.  Regardless of the possible consequences.  Fast forward to 2008 and we see what happens with the ‘more is better’ philosophy.  When we put so many people into homes they couldn’t afford for the sake of making them home owners.  When the ideal circumstances (i.e., low ARM interest rates) went away, so did their ability to pay their mortgage.  Bankruptcies soared thanks to these subprime loans.   And housing values plummeted thanks to all of these bankruptcies.  And when people were putting zero down and their mortgage just became greater than the market value of their house, guess what?  They walked away.  Only possible in the era of the subprime mortgage.  Because people don’t walk away after a 20% down payment.

“If the dollar was as good as gold, other countries would want to buy it.”

Yes, they would.  They would want our money.  But not our exports.  Because a strong dollar makes them more expensive to export markets.  That’s why the Chinese are keeping their currency devalued.  To make sure those things stamped ‘made in China’ are cheaper than the things stamped ‘made in the USA’ in U.S. stores.

A Weak Dollar is a Strong Economic Tool

If the U.S. had a gold standard it would probably not have trillion dollar deficits.  It’s just too hard to spend that kind of money with a gold standard because there are consequences to such irresponsibility.  Which would probably mean we would have already had the entitlement reform debate.  And probably would have fixed the problem before it got so expensive to fix.

Of course, this is the reason why politicians are so against having a gold standard.  It takes all the fun out of being a politician.  By making it harder to buy votes.  And one of the best ways of getting people to vote for you is having an uptick in economic activity before an election.  At election time politicians are always looking short term.  They don’t care about the long term.  And the short-term effect of a weak dollar is a boost in economic activity.  Our products are cheaper than imported products.  And our exports are cheaper than their domestic market competitors.  Which will improve the economic numbers.  The inflation it causes will be further down the road.  And harder for people to understand what caused it.  The short-term benefits of a weak dollar.

Entitlement Reform probably an Easier Debate

There is so much political opposition to a return to the gold standard that it is unlikely ever to happen.  Even the great Milton Friedman was against it.  And he makes some good responsible arguments against gold.  Another worry is what happens if Russia and/or China discover huge gold deposits in their countries?  That part of the world is rich in natural resources.  It could happen.  And a gold standard would then give them a huge economic advantage over the world’s economies.

It’s not going to be an easy debate.  Perhaps this is the reason Reagan gave up on it so easily.  Because it makes entitlement reform look easy in comparison.

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LESSONS LEARNED #28: “Politicians love failure because no one ever asked government to fix something that was working.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - August 26th, 2010

THE TELEVISION SHOW Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. aired from 1964-1969.  It was a spinoff from the Andy Griffith Show.  Gomer, a naive country bumpkin who worked at Wally’s filling station, joined the Marines Corps.  And there was much mirth and merriment.  To the chagrin of Sergeant Carter, Pyle’s drill instructor (DI).  Think of Gunny Sergeant R. Lee Ermey’s Sergeant Hartman in the movie Full Metal Jacket only with no profanity or mature subject matter.  Sergeant Carter was a tough DI like Sergeant Hartman.  But more suitable for the family hour on prime time television.

Gunny sergeants are tough as nails.  And good leaders.  They take pride in this.  But sometimes a gunny starts to feel that he’s not himself anymore.  This was the subject of an episode.  And Gomer, seeing that Sergeant Carter was feeling down, wanted to help.  So he stuffed Sergeant Carter’s backpack with hay before a long march.  While the platoon was worn and tired, Sergeant Carter was not.  He was feeling good.  Like his old self.  Until he found out he was not carrying the same load his men were.  He asked Pyle, “why hay?”  He could understand rocks, but hay?  Because if he outlasted his men while carrying a heavier load, he would feel strong.  But knowing he had carried a lighter load only made him feel weak.

This is human nature.  People take pride in their achievements.  They don’t take pride in any achievement attained by an unfair advantage.  Self-esteem matters.  And you can’t feel good about yourself if you need help to do what others can do without help. 

AN OLD CHINESE proverb goes, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”  Let’s say I am a fisherman in a small village.  I catch fish to feed my family and sell/trade for other family needs.  There’s a man in my village who asks me for a fish each day so he can eat.  I’m a caring person.  So I give him a fish each day.  So a pattern develops.  Each day he shows up when I come in from my fishing.  He takes the fish and goes away.  It works out well for him.  He doesn’t have to work.  He can live off of my kind charity.  Then I move.  Without me being there to give him a fish each day, he no longer can eat.  And dies.  If I only had taught that man to fish. 

Kindness can lead to dependency.  And once dependent, you become lazy.  Why develop marketable skills to provide for yourself when someone else will provide for you?  The problem is, of course, what happens when that charity ends?  If you’re unable to provide for yourself and there is no longer someone providing for you, what do you do?  Steal?

Dependency and a lack of self-esteem are a dangerous combination.  And they feed off of each other.  This combination can lead to depression.  Behavioral problems.  Resentment.  Bitterness.  Envy.  Or a defeatist attitude.

These are often unintended consequences of government programs.  A failed program, then, has far reaching consequences beyond the initial economic costs of a program.

LIQUIDITY CRISES CAUSE a lot of economic damage.  If capital is not available for businesses to borrow, businesses can’t grow.  Or create jobs.  And we need jobs.  People have to work.  To support themselves.  And to pay taxes to fund the government.  So everyone is in favor of businesses growing to create jobs.  We all would like to see money being easy and cheap to borrow if it creates jobs.

But there is a downside to easy money.  Inflation.  Too much borrowing can create inflation.  By increasing the money supply (via fractional reserve banking).  More money means higher prices.  Because each additional dollar is worth a little less. This can lead to overvalued assets as prices are ‘bid’ up with less valuable dollars.  And higher prices can inflate business profits.  Looks good on paper.  But too much of this creates a bubble.  Because those high asset values and business profits are not real.  They’re inflated.  Like a bubble.  And just as fragile.  When bubbles burst, asset values and business profits drop.  To real values.  People are no longer ‘bidding’ up prices.  They stop buying until they think prices have sunk to their lowest.  We call this deflation.  A little bit of inflation or deflation is normal.  Too much can be painful economically.  Like in the Panic of 1907.

Without going into details, there was a speculative bubble that burst in 1907.  This led to a liquidity crisis as banks failed.  Defaults on loans left banks owing more money than they had (i.e., they became illiquid).  They tried to borrow money and recall loans to restore their liquidity.  Borrowers grew concerned that their bank may fail.  So they withdrew their money.  This compounded the banks problems.  This caused deflation.  Money was unavailable.  Causing bank runs.  And bank failures.  Business failures.  And unemployment grew. So government passed the Federal Reserve Act of 1913 to prevent a crisis like this from ever happening again.  The government gave the Federal Reserve System (the Fed) great powers to tweak the monetary system.  The smartest people at the time had figured out what had gone wrong in 1907.  And they created a system that made it impossible for it to happen again.

The worst liquidity crisis of all time happened from 1929-1933.  It’s part of what we call the Great Depression.  The 1920s had a booming economy.  Real income was rising.  Until the Fed took action.  Concerned that people were borrowing money for speculative purposes (in paper investments instead of labor, plant and material), they put on the brakes.  Made it harder and more expensive to borrow money.  Then a whole series of things happened along the way that turned a recession into a depression.  When people needed money, they made it harder to get it, causing a deflationary spiral.  The Great Depression was the result of bad decisions made by too few men with too much power.  It made a crisis far worse than the one in 1907.  And the Roosevelt administration made good use of this new crisis.  FDR exploded the size of government to respond to the unprecedented crisis they found themselves in.  The New Deal changed America from a nation of limited government to a country where Big Government reigns supreme.

ONE PROGRAM OF the New Deal was Social Security.  Unemployment in the 1930s ran at or above 14%.  This is for one whole decade.  Never before nor since has this happened.  Older workers generally earn more than younger ones.  Their experience commands a higher pay rate.  Which allows them to buy more things.  Resulting in more bills.  Therefore, the Great Depression hit older workers especially hard.  A decade of unemployment would have eaten through any life savings of even the most prudent savers.  And what does this get you?  A great crisis.

The government took a very atypical moment of history and changed the life of every American.  The government forced people to save for retirement.  In a very poor savings plan.  That paid poorly by comparison to private pensions or annuities.  And gave the government control over vast amounts of money.  It was a pervasive program.  They say FDR quipped, “Let them try to undo this.” 

With government taking care of you in retirement, more people stopped providing for themselves.  When they retired, they scrimped by on their ‘fixed’ incomes.  And because Social Security became law before widespread use of birth control and abortion, the actuaries of the day were very optimistic.  They used the birth rate then throughout their projections.  But with birth control and abortion came a huge baby bust.  The bottom fell out of the birth rate.  A baby bust generation followed a baby boom generation.  Actually, all succeeding generations were of the bust kind.  The trend is growing where fewer and fewer people pay for more and more people collecting benefits.  And these people were living longer.  To stay solvent, the system has to raise taxes on those working and reduce benefits on those who are not.  Or raise the retirement age.  All these factors have made it more difficult on our aged population.  Making them working longer than they planned.  Or by making that fixed income grow smaller.

FDR used a crisis to create Social Security.  Now our elderly people are dependent on that system.  It may suck when they compare it to private pensions or annuities, but it may be all they have.  If so, they’ll quake in their shoes anytime anyone mentions reforming Social Security.  Because of this it has become the 3rd rail of politics.  A politician does not touch it lest he or she wishes to die politically.  But it’s not all bad.  For the politician.  Because government forced the elderly to rely on them for their retirement, it has made the Social Security recipient dependent on government.  In particular, the party of government who favors Big Government.  The Democrats.  And with a declining birth rate and growing aged population, this has turned into a large and loyal voting bloc indeed.  Out of fear.

A PROGRAM THAT straddled the New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society was Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC).  Its original New Deal purpose was to help widows take care of their children.  When program outlays peaked in the 1970s, the majority of recipients were unmarried women and divorced women.  Because this was a program based on need, the more need you had the more you got.  Hence more children meant more money.  It also reduced the importance of marriage as the government could replace the support typically provided by a husband/father.  Noted economist Dr. Thomas Sowell blames AFDC as greatly contributing to the breakdown of the black family (which has the highest incidence of single-parent households).

With the women’s liberation movement, women have come to depend less on men.  Some affluent women conceive and raise children without a husband.  Or they adopt.  And the affluent no doubt can provide all the material needs their children will ever need.  Without a husband.  Or a father for their children.  But is that enough?

The existence of ‘big brother’ programs would appear to prove otherwise.  Troubled children are often the products of broken families.  Mothers search for big brothers to mentor these fatherless sons.  To be role models.  To show an interest in these children’s lives.  To care.  When no such role models are available, some of these troubled children turn to other sources of acceptance and guidance.  Like gangs.

AFDC has compounded this problem by providing the environment that fosters fatherless children.  And another government program compounds that problem.  Public housing.

POOR HOUSING CONDITIONS hurt families.  They especially hurt broken families.  Without a working husband, these families are destined to live in the cheapest housing available.  These are often in the worst of neighborhoods.  This is an unfair advantage to the children raised in those families.  For it wasn’t their fault they were born into those conditions.  So, to solve that problem, government would build good public housing for these poorest of the poor to move into.  Problem solved.

Well, not exactly.  Public housing concentrates these broken families together.  Usually in large apartment buildings.  This, then, concentrates large numbers of troubled children together.  So, instead of having these children dispersed in a community, public housing gathers them together.  Where bad behavior reinforces bad behavior.  It becomes the rule, not the exception.  Making a mother’s job that much more difficult.  And because these children live together, they also go to school together.  And this extends the bad behavior problem to the school.  Is it any wonder that public housing (i.e., the projects) have the worst living conditions?  And some of the highest gang activity? 

Government didn’t plan it this way.  It’s just the unintended consequences of their actions.  And those consequences are devastating.  To the poor in general.  To the black family in particular.  AFDC and public housing enabled irresponsible/bad behavior.  That behavior destroyed families.  As well as a generation or two.  But it wasn’t all bad.  For the politicians.  It made a very large constituency dependent on government.

THERE ARE SO many more examples.  But the story is almost always the same.  Dependency and a lack of self-esteem will beat down a person’s will.  Like an addict, it will make the dependent accept poorer and poorer living standards in exchange for their fix of dependency.  Eventually, the dependency will reach the point where they will not know how to provide for themselves.  The dependency will become permanent.  As will the lack of self-esteem.  Conscious or not of their actions, Big Government benefits from the wretched state they give these constituencies.  With no choice but continued dependence, they vote for the party that promises to give the most.  Which is typically the Democrat Party.

But how can you fault these politicians?  They acted with the best of intentions.  And they can fix these new problems.  They’ll gather the brightest minds.  They’ll study these problems.  And they will produce the best programs to solve these problems.  All it will take is more government spending.  And how can you refuse?  When people are hungry.  Or homeless.  Or have children that they can’t care for.  How can anyone not want to help the children?  How can anyone not have compassion?

Well, compassion is one thing.  When the innocent suffer.  But when government manufactures that suffering, it’s a different story.  Planned or not the result is the same whenever government tries to fix things.  The cost is high.  The solution is typically worse than the original problem.  And the poorest of the poor are pawns.  To be used by Big Government in the name of compassion. 

Of course, if Big Government were successful in fixing these problems, they would fix themselves right out of existence.  So as long as they want to run Big Government programs, they’ll need a stock of wretched, suffering masses that need their help.  And, of course, lots of crises.

www.PITHOCRATES.com

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