Mercantilism

Posted by PITHOCRATES - May 14th, 2012

Economics 101

Wealth is the Stuff we use our Talent and Ability to Make

Mercantilism gave us the United States.  For it was because of these policies that the British established colonies in North America.  And it was those same policies that led to American Independence.  Because those polices pissed off the Americans. 

The mercantile system came into being as nation states arose from feudal estates.  Kings arose and consolidated these estates into larger kingdoms.  Then one king arose to consolidate the kingdoms into a nation.  Creating Spain, France, the Netherlands, England, etc.  Enlightened thinking and better technology created food surpluses.  With food surpluses a middle class of artisans arose.  And manufactured goods.  People met in markets to trade their food and goods.   These markets grew into cities.  All of this economic activity created wealth.  Food.  And manufactured goods.  That we bought with money.  Often silver and gold. 

There was wealth.  And there was money.  Two different things.  Wealth is the stuff we use our talent and ability to make.  Food and manufactured goods, for example.  And the more food and manufactured goods a nation has the wealthier that nation is.  This is a critical point.  And the mercantile policies ultimately failed because those policies mistook money for wealth.  But money is not wealth.  It’s a temporary storage of wealth.  To make our trading of food and manufactured goods easier.  By reducing the search costs to find people to trade with.  Which is why the barter system failed in a complex economy.  It just took too long to find people to trade with.  Money solved that problem.  Because you could trade what you had for money.  Then trade your money for what you wanted.

England used the Positive Flow of Bullion to Finance the Building of the Royal Navy

Mercantilism focused on the money.  And used wealth to accumulate it.  Instead of the other way around.  The way most advanced nations do today.  These European nations accumulated money with international trade.  Beginning in the 15th century they started looking at the balance of trade between nations.  And did everything they could to maintain a positive balance of trade.  Meaning they tried to export more than they imported.  Why?  Well, nations often did trade with each other.  So they owed each other money.  And when you settled your account if other nations owed you more than you owed them there was a net flow of money to you.  Bullion.  Silver and gold.  Which is what they wanted.

To maintain a positive balance of trade the government actively intervened into the economy.  It set up monopolies.  It provided subsidies for manufacturers who exported their goods for bullion.  It placed tariffs on imports.  Or simply blocked the importation of any goods that they produced domestically.  They set up colonies to harvest raw materials to ship back to the mother country.  Which would use those raw materials in their factories to produced higher valued finished goods.  That they would export.  Especially to their colonies.  Which were convenient captive markets for their finished goods.  On the mother country’s ships.  Through the mother country’s ports.  Where they, of course taxed it.  Guaranteeing that at every step of the way they added to the positive bullion flow back to the mother country.

And it worked.  To a certain extent.  England used that positive flow of bullion to finance the building of the Royal Navy.  Which proved invaluable in the wars that followed in the mercantile world.  For mercantilism is a zero-sum game.  For every winner there had to be a loser.  Which is why this era was an era of world war.  To wrest control of those colonies.  And those sea lanes.  Great Britain came out the victor.  Thanks to their Royal Navy.  But it wasn’t all good.  For Spain found gold in the New World.  And they took it.  Shipped it back to the Old World.  Just like a good mercantilist would.  Which caused problems in the Old World.  Because money is not wealth.  It’s a temporary storage of wealth.  And when they inflated their money supply it took more of it to hold the same amount of value it once did.  Because there was so much of it in circulation.  And what happens during inflation?  Prices rise.  Because the money is worth less it takes more of it to buy the same things as it did before.  So by hording bullion to create wealth they actually destroyed wealth.  With wealth-destroying inflation.

With the Boston Tea Party the Americans Renounced Mercantilism and Demanded Free Trade

Spain was one of the greatest mercantile nations of the era.  But they quickly became a shadow of their former self.  Even though they had more bullion than their European neighbors.  For it turned out that those mercantile policies hindered economic growth.  Which is the true source of wealth.  Economic growth.  Where people use their talent and ability to create things.  That’s where the true value lay.  Not the money that held that value temporarily.  All those mercantilist policies did was raise domestic prices.  And allocated scarce resources poorly. 

It turned out free trade was the secret to wealth.  For free trade can increase wealth.  For both nations.  Thanks to something we call comparative advantage.  Instead of both nations manufacturing all of their goods they should only manufacture those goods that they can manufacture best.  And trade for the goods they can’t manufacture best.  This more efficiently allocates those scarce resources.  And produces a greater total amount of wealth.  By allowing people to buy lower cost imports they have more money left over to buy other stuff.  Increasing the overall amount of economic activity.  Which is why when Great Britain adopted free trade in the 19th century the British Empire went on to rule the world for a century or so.  And led the Industrial Revolution.  By creating wealth.  Goods and services people created with their talent and ability.  That changed the world.  And ushered in the modern era.  Something no amount of bullion could do.

But before Britain adopted free trade they were struggling with one of their belligerent colonies.  Their British American colonies.  Who were unhappy over taxation without representation in Parliament.  And the mother country forcing them to buy only British tea shipped on British ships at higher prices than they could get from the Dutch.  The British thought they found a solution to their problem.  By permitting their British East India Company monopoly to ship their tea directly to America without passing through an English port.  The tea was cheaper because of this.  But it also would set a precedent for taxation without representation.  Something the Americans weren’t about to accept.  So they threw that tea into Boston Harbor.  What we affectionately call the Boston Tea Party.  Renouncing mercantilism.  And demanding the right to engage in free trade.  Which they got after winning their independence.  And the mother country would follow suit in a few decades.  Because they, too, would learn that free trade was better than mercantilism.

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The Chicago School of Economics

Posted by PITHOCRATES - March 5th, 2012

Economics 101

Monetarists believe in Laissez-Faire Capitalism and Fiat Money

Keynesian economics supports hands-on government management of the economy.  Using fiscal and monetary policy to move the aggregate demand curve at will to end business cycles.  The boom bust cycles between inflation and recession.  Leaving only the inflationary boom times.   Using tax and spend fiscal policies.  Or simply printing money for government expenditures.  For in Keynesian economics consumption is key.  The more of it the better.  And when people stop buying things the government should step in and pick up the consumption slack.

The Austrian school is a more hands-off approach.  The markets should be free.  Laissez-faire capitalism.  And the business cycle should remain.  For it is a necessary part of the economy.  Part of the automatic pricing mechanism that adjusts supply to meet demand.  When people demand more prices go up.  Encouraging businesses to expand production to sell at these higher prices (inflationary expansion).  Then when supply exceeds demand businesses have excessive inventory that they can’t sell anymore at those higher prices.  So they cut their prices to sell off this excessive supply (deflationary recession).  Also, that hands-off approach means no playing with monetary policy.  Austrians prefer a gold standard to prevent central bank mischief that results in inflation.

The Chicago school of economics takes a little from each of these schools.  Like the Austrians they believe that government should take a hands-off approach in the economy.  Markets should be free with minimum government intervention.  But unlike Austrians, they hate gold.  And blame the gold standard for causing the Great Depression.  Instead, they believe in the flexibility of fiat money.  As do the Keynesians.  But with a strict monetary policy to minimize inflation (which is why proponents of this school were also called monetarists).  Unlike the Keynesians.  For monetarists believe only a government’s monetary policy can cause runaway inflation.

(This is a gross simplification of these three schools.  A more detailed and comprehensive study would be a bit overwhelming as well as extremely boring.  But you get the gist.  At least, for the point of this discussion.)

We used Gold and Silver for Money because it was Durable, Portable, Divisible, Fungible, Scarce, Etc.

At the heart of the difference between these schools is money.  So a refresher course on money is in order.  Money stores wealth temporarily.  When we create something of value (a good or a service) we can use that value to trade for something we want.  We used to barter with other creative people who made value of their own.  But as the economy got more complex it took more and more time to find people to trade with.  You had to find someone who had what you wanted who also wanted what you had.  If you baked bread and wanted shoes you had to find a shoemaker who wanted bread.  Not impossible.  But it took a lot of time to find these people to trade with.

Then someone had a brilliant idea.  They figured they could trade their good or service NOT for something THEY wanted but something OTHER people would want.  Such as tobacco.  Whiskey.  Or grain.  These things were valuable.  Other people would want them.  So they could easily trade their good or service for one of these things.  And then later trade it for what they wanted.  And money was born.  For various reasons (durable, portable, divisible, fungible, scarce, etc.) we chose gold and silver as our money of choice.  Due to the inconvenience and danger of carrying these precious metals around, though, we stored our precious metals in a vault and used ‘receipts’ of that deposit as currency.  And the gold standard was born.

To understand the gold standard think of a balance scale.  The kind where you put weights on one side to balance the load on the other.  When the scale balances the weight of the load equals the sum of the weights needed to make the scale balance.  Now imagine a scale like this where the VALUE of all goods and services (created by talented people) are on one side.  And all the precious metal in the gold standard are on the other.  These must be in balance.  And the sum of our currency must equal the amount of precious metal.  (Because they are ‘receipts’ for all that gold and silver we have locked up someplace.)  This prevents the government from creating inflation.  If you want to issue more money you have to put more precious metal onto the scale.  You just can’t print money.  For when you do and you don’t increase the amount of precious metal on the scale you depreciate the currency.  Because more of it equals the same amount of precious metal.  For more currency to equal the same amount of precious metal then each unit of currency has to be worth less.  And when each unit is worth less it takes more of them to buy the same things they bought before.  Thus raising prices.  If a government prints more currency without adding more precious metals on the scale they increase the value of that precious metal when MEASURED in that currency.  It becomes worth more.  In other words, you can trade that precious metal for more of that depreciated currency than before they depreciated it.  You do this too much and eventually people will prefer the precious metal over the currency.  They’ll lose faith in the currency.  And when that happens the economy collapses.  As people move back towards a barter system.

Milton Friedman wanted the Responsibility of the Gold Standard without Gold’s Constraint on increasing the Money Supply

A healthy economy needs a stable currency.  One that people don’t lose faith in.  Imagine trying to shop without money.  Instead, taking things to trade for the groceries you need.  Not very efficient.  So we need a stable currency.  And the gold standard gives us that.  However, the thing that makes gold or silver a stable currency, its scarcity, creates a liability.  Let’s go back to that balance scale.  To the side that contains the value of all goods and services.  Let’s say it increases.  But the precious metal on the other side doesn’t.  Which means the value of that precious metal increases.  The currency must equal the value of that precious metal.  So the value of the currency increases.  And prices fall.  It takes less of it to buy the same things it bought before.  Not a bad thing for consumers.  But it plays havoc with those who borrowed money before this appreciation.  Because they now have to repay money that is worth more than when what is was worth when they borrowed it.  Which hurt farmers during the 1920s.  Who borrowed a lot of money to mechanize their farms.  Which helped to greatly increase farm yields.  And increased food supplies while demand remained unchanged.  Which, of course, lowered farm prices.  The supply increased on the scale.  But the amount of gold didn’t.  Thus increasing the value of the gold.  And the currency.  Making prices fall.  Kicking off the deflationary spiral of the Great Depression.  Or so say the monetarists.

Now the monetarists wanted to get rid of the gold supply.  The Keynesians did, too.  But they wanted to do it so they could print and spend money.  Which they did during the Seventies.  Creating both a high unemployment rate and a high inflation rate.  Something that wasn’t supposed to happen in Keynesian economics.  For their solution to fix unemployment was to use inflation to stimulate aggregate demand in the economy.  Thus reducing unemployment.  But when they did this during the Seventies it didn’t work.  The Keynesians were befuddled.  But not the monetarists.  Who understood that the expansion of the money supply (printing money to spend) was responsible for that inflation.  People understood this, too.  And had rational expectations of how that Keynesian policy was going to end.  Higher prices.  So they raised prices before the stimulus could impact unemployment.  To stay ahead of the coming inflation.  So the Keynesian stimulus did nothing to reduce unemployment.  It just caused runaway inflation.  And raised consumer prices.  Which, in turn, decreased economic activity.  And further increased unemployment.

Perhaps the most well known economist in the Chicago school was Milton Friedman.  Who wanted the responsibility of the gold standard.  But without gold’s constraint on increasing the money supply to meet demand.  The key to monetarism.  To increase the money supply to match the growth in the economy.  To keep that scale balanced.  But without gold.  Instead, putting the money supply directly on the scale.  Printing fiat money as needed.  Great power.  But with great power comes great responsibility.  And if you abuse that power (as in printing money irresponsibly) the consequences of that abuse will be swift.  Thanks to the rational expectations of the people.  Another tenet of the Chicago school.

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Carnegie, Rockefeller, Morgan, Interstate Commerce Act, Sherman Antitrust Act, Sherman Silver Purchase Act, Federal Reserve, Nixon and Reagan

Posted by PITHOCRATES - January 31st, 2012

History 101

Government Induced Inflation caused the Panic of 1893 and caused the Worst Depression until the Great Depression

Britain kicked off the Industrial Revolution.  Then handed off the baton to the United States in the latter half of the 19th century.  As American industry roared.  Great industrialists modernize America.  And the world.  Andrew Carnegie made steel inexpensive and plentiful.  He built railroad track and bridges.  And the steel-skeleton buildings of U.S. cities.  Including the skyscrapers.  John D. Rockefeller saved the whales.  By producing less expensive kerosene to burn in lamps instead of the more expensive whale oil.  He refined oil and brought it to market cheaper and more efficiently than anyone else.  Fueling industrial activity and expansion.  J.P. Morgan developed and financed railroads.  Made them more efficient.  Profitable.  And moved goods and people more efficiently than ever before.  Raising the standard of living to heights never seen before. 

The industrial economy was surging along.  And all of this without a central bank.  Credit was available.  So much so that it unleashed unprecedented economic growth.  That would have kept on going had government not stopped it.  With the Interstate Commerce Act in 1887 and the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890.  Used by competitors who could not compete against the economy of scales of Carnegie, Rockefeller and Morgan and sell at their low prices.  So they used their friends in government to raise prices so they didn’t have to be as competitive and efficient as Carnegie, Rockefeller and Morgan.  This legislation restrained the great industrialists.  Which began the era of complying with great regulatory compliance costs.  And expending great effort to get around those great regulatory compliance costs.

Also during the late 19th century there was a silver boom.  This dumped so much silver on the market that miners soon were spending more in mining it than they were selling it for.  Also, farmers were using the latest in technology to mechanize their farms.  They put more land under cultivation and increased farm yields.  So much so that prices fell.  They fell so far that farmers were struggling to pay their debts.  So the silver miners used their friends in government to solve the problems of both miners and farmers.  The government passed the Sherman Silver Purchase Act which increased the amount of silver the government purchased.  Issuing new treasury notes.  Redeemable in both gold and silver.  The idea was to create inflation to raise prices and help those farmers.  By allowing them to repay old debt easier with a depreciated currency.  And how did that work?  Investors took those new bank notes and exchanged them for gold.  And caused a run on U.S. gold reserves that nearly destroyed the banking system.  Plunging the nation in crisis.  The Panic of 1893.  The worst depression until the Great Depression.

Richard Nixon Decoupled the Dollar from Gold and the Keynesians Cheered 

J.P. Morgan stepped in and loaned the government gold to stabilize the banking system.  He would do it again in the Panic of 1907.  The great industrialists created unprecedented economic activity during the latter half of the 19th century.  Only to see poor government policies bring on the worst depression until the Great Depression.  A crisis one of the great industrialists, J.P. Morgan, rescued the country from.  But great capitalists like Morgan wouldn’t always be there to save the country.  Especially the way new legislation was attacking them.  So the U.S. created a central bank.  The Federal Reserve System.  Which was in place and ready to respond to the banking crisis following the stock market crash of 1929.  And did such a horrible job that they gave us the worst depression since the Panic of 1893.  The Great Depression.  Where we saw the greatest bank failures in U.S. history.  Failures the Federal Reserve was specifically set up to prevent.

The 1930s was a lost decade thanks to even more bad government policy.  FDR’s New Deal programs did nothing to end the Great Depression.  Only capitalism did.  And a new bunch of great industrialists.  Who were allowed to tool up and make their factories hum again.  Without having to deal with costly regulatory compliance.  Thanks to Adolf Hitler.  And the war he started.  World War II.  The urgency of the times repealed governmental nonsense.  And the industrialists responded.  Building the planes, tanks and trucks that defeated Hitler.  The Arsenal of Democracy.  And following the war with the world’s industrial centers devastated by war, these industrialists rebuilt the devastated countries.  The fifties boomed thanks to a booming export economy.  But it wouldn’t last.  Eventually those war-torn countries rebuilt themselves.  And LBJ would become president.

The Sixties saw a surge in government spending.  The U.S. space program was trying to put a man on the moon.  The Vietnam War escalated.  And LBJ introduced us to massive new government spending.  The Great Society.  The war to end poverty.  And racial injustice.  It failed.  At least, based on ever more federal spending and legislation to end poverty and racial injustice.  But that government spending was good.  At least the Keynesians thought so.  Richard Nixon, too.  Because he was inflating the currency to keep that spending going.  But the U.S. dollar was pegged to gold.  And this devaluation of the dollar was causing another run on U.S. gold reserves.  But Nixon responded like a true Keynesian.  And broke free from the shackles of gold.  By decoupling the dollar from gold.  And the Keynesians cheered.  Because the government could now use the full power of monetary policy to make recessions and unemployment a thing of the past.

Activist, Interventionist Government have brought Great Economic Booms to Collapse 

The Seventies was a decade of pure Keynesian economics.  It was also the decade that gave us double digit interest rates.  And double digit inflation rates.  It was the decade that gave us the misery index (the inflation rate plus the unemployment rate).  And stagflation.  The combination of a high inflation rate you normally only saw in boom times coupled with a high unemployment rate you only saw during recessionary times.  Something that just doesn’t happen.  But it did.  Thanks to Keynesian economics.  And bad monetary policy.

Ronald Reagan was no Keynesian.  He was an Austrian school supply-sider.  He and his treasury secretary, Paul Volcker, attacked inflation.  The hard way.  The only way.  Through a painful recession.  They stopped depreciating the dollar.  And after killing the inflation monster they lowered interest rates.  Cut tax rates.  And made the business climate business-friendly.  Capitalists took notice.  New entrepreneurs rose.  Innovated.  Created new technologies.  The Eighties was the decade of Silicon Valley.  And the electronics boom.  Powering new computers.  Electronic devices.  And software.  Businesses computerized and became more efficient.  Machine tools became computer-controlled.  The economy went high-tech.  Efficient.  And cool.  Music videos, CD players, VCRs, cable TV, satellite TV, cell phones, etc.  It was a brave new world.  Driven by technology.  And a business-friendly environment.  Where risk takers took risks.  And created great things.

History has shown that capitalists bring great things to market when government doesn’t get in the way.  With their punishing fiscal policies.  And inept monetary policies.  Activist, interventionist government have brought great economic booms to collapse.  Who meddle and turn robust economic activity into recessions.  And recessions into depressions.  The central bank being one of their greatest tools of destruction.  Because policy is too often driven by Big Government idealism.  And not the proven track record of capitalism.  As proven by the great industrialists.  And high-tech entrepreneurs.  Time and time again.

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Goldsmiths, Gold Standard, Fractional Reserve Banking, Sherman Silver Purchase Act, Panics of 1893 & 1907 and the Federal Reserve System

Posted by PITHOCRATES - January 24th, 2012

History 101

Goldsmiths Encouraged others to Store their Precious Metals with them by Paying Interest on their Deposits

Goldsmiths were some of our first banks.  Because they worked with gold.  And needed a safe place to lock it up.  To prevent thieves from getting their gold.  Other people who had precious metals (gold and silver) also needed a safe place to put their precious metals.  And what better place was there than a goldsmith?  For a goldsmith knew a thing or two about securing precious metals.

People used gold and silver for money.  But they didn’t like carrying it around.  Because carrying a heavy pouch of gold and silver was just an invitation for thieves.  So they took their gold and silver to the goldsmith.  The goldsmith locked it up for a small fee.  And gave the person a receipt for his or her gold or silver.  Which became paper currency.  Backed by precious metal.  The first ‘gold’ standard.  These receipts could be inconspicuously tucked away and hidden from the prying eyes of thieves.  They were light, convenient and a nice temporary storage of value.  Sellers would accept these receipts as money because they could take these receipts to the goldsmith and exchange them for the precious metal held in the goldsmith’s depository.

As these receipts circulated as money the goldsmith noted that more and more gold and silver accumulated in his depository.  Few holders of his receipts were exchanging them for the deposited gold and silver.  The precious metal just sat there.  Doing nothing.  And earning nothing.  Which gave these early ‘bankers’ an idea.  They would invest some of these deposits and have them earn something.  Leaving just a little on hand in their depositories for the occasional few who came in and exchanged their receipts for the precious metals they represented.  It was a novel idea.  And a profitable one.  Soon storage fees became interest payments.  As goldsmiths encouraged others to store their precious metals with them by paying them interest on their deposits.

The Panic of 1893 was the Worst Depression until the Great Depression

But there were risks.  Because they only kept a small fraction of their deposits in the bank.  Which could prove to be quite a problem if a lot of borrowers asked for their money back at the same time.  It’s happened.  And when it did it wasn’t pretty.  Because all borrowers eventually get wind of trouble.  And they know about that limited amount of money actually in the bank.  So when there is trouble in the air they run to the bank.  To withdraw their deposits while the bank still has money to withdraw.  What we call a run on the bank.  Which often precedes a bank failure.  Hence the run.

In 1890 U.S. farmers were using technology to over produce.  And some miners discovered some rich silver veins.  Making farm crops and silver plentiful.  A little too plentiful.  The price of silver fell below the cost of mining it.  And farm prices fell.  Making it difficult for farmers to service their debt.  They wanted some inflation.  To be able to pay off their past debt with cheaper dollars.  And all that silver could make that happen.  With the help of friends in Congress.  And the Sherman Silver Purchase Act.  Which required the U.S. government to buy a lot of that silver.  And issue notes backed in that silver.  Notes that could be exchanged for silver.  As well as gold.  A big mistake as it turned out.  Because silver was flooding the market.  While gold wasn’t.  Investors clearly understood this.  They took those new notes and exchanged them for gold.  Depleting U.S. gold reserves.

While this was happening there was a railroad boom.  They were building new railroads everywhere.  Financed by excessive borrowing.  In hopes to reap great profits from those new lines.  Lines as it turned out that could never pay for themselves.  Railroads failed.  Which meant they could not repay those great debts.  Which caused a lot of bank failures.  As this was happening people ran to their banks to withdraw their money while the banks still had money to withdraw.  Which only made the banking crisis worse.  Coupled with the depletion of U.S. gold reserves this shook the very foundation of the U.S. banking system.  And launched the Panic of 1893.  The worst depression until the Great Depression.

The Federal Reserve System did not work as well as J.P. Morgan

But this wasn’t the last crisis.  As soon as 1907 there was another one.  Involving another metal.  This time copper.  Not a metal backing the U.S. dollar.  But a metal that precipitated another rash of bank runs.  Including the downfall of the Knickerbocker Trust Company.  A New York financial powerhouse.   Instigated by someone who borrowed heavily to corner the market in copper.  Who failed.  Forcing his creditors to eat his massive loans.  Thus precipitating the aforementioned bank runs.

The bank runs of 1893 and 1907 were caused by liquidity crises as depositors pulled out more money than these banks had on hand.  That risk of fractional reserve banking.  At the time of these crises there was no central bank to step in and restore liquidity.  So a rich guy did.  J.P. Morgan.  Who on more than one occasion stepped in and used his wealth and influence to save the U.S. banking system.  The last crisis, the Panic of 1907, would be the last time for Morgan.  Who said another one would ruin him.  And the United States.

Shortly thereafter Congress passed the Federal Reserve Act in 1913.  Creating the American central bank.  The Federal Reserve System.  To prevent further bank runs by being the lender of last resort during future liquidity crises.  Which did not work as well as J.P. Morgan.  For the worst banking crisis of all time happened during the Great Depression.  Which followed the creation of the Federal Reserve System.  And just goes to show you that a smart rich guy is better than a bunch of government bureaucrats.

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Money, Gold Standard, Banknotes, Bills of Exchange, Checks, Credit and Debit Cards, ATMs and Online Banking

Posted by PITHOCRATES - January 4th, 2012

Technology 101

People storing their Gold in the Goldsmith’s Safe was a Precursor to the Gold Standard

Money is a temporary storage of wealth.  It improved on the barter system.  Instead of having to find people to trade our wealth-creating talents for the wealth-creating talents of other people we just stored the wealth we created in money.  If you built a plow and wanted a sack of wheat you didn’t have to find someone who had a sack of wheat who wanted a plow.  You could just go to the city market and sell your plow for money.  And use your money to buy the wheat.

Money took many forms.  Animals.  Grain.  Tobacco.  Alcohol.  And other commodities.  All of which had drawbacks.  Grain can become cumbersome to carry to market.  And it can be difficult making change with animals.  The precious metals gold and silver solved these problems.  Easier to carry.  Easy to exchange for goods.  You just weighed out whatever amount needed.  Durable.  Not easy to get so it would hold its value.  It was uniform.  Gold was gold.  Silver was silver.  Not so with animals.  They can be big or small.  Old or young.  One breed or another.  Making the value of animals non-uniform.  On top of not being very divisible in making change.

So gold and silver became the money of choice.  As it gained universality it became even more valuable.  And a bit dangerous to carry around on you.  Or leave at your home in your sock drawer.  Because other people wanted it, too.  And not the kind looking to trade with you.  The kind of people who just want to take your gold.  Se we needed a safe place to store it.  And few places were safer than a safe.  And who had a safe?  Goldsmiths.  So people took their gold to the local goldsmith.  Who placed their gold into his safe.  And the goldsmith gave the person a note stating the value of gold stored in his safe.  A precursor to the gold standard.

Merchant Banks Specialized in International Trade and Foreign Currency Exchange

And the banknote was born.  A promise to exchange that note for the amount of gold or silver specified on the note.  These notes were much easier to carry around than the heavier metal itself.  So the metal stayed in the safe and people started using the notes for currency instead.

And there were other notes that held value.  Such as a bill of exchange.  Popular with international trade.  Because ships rarely travel empty.  Which means at each port they are unloading one cargo (the import) and loading one new cargo (the export).   The people who do this importing and exporting are merchants.  They buy and sell.  That is, they pay money for one cargo and then collect money for another.  A good portion of these payments and collections equal each other.  So instead of paying money for one import cargo only to get most of that money back on a subsequent export cargo, they used bills of exchange.  And the merchants added the sum of payments and the sum of collections for each account (import/export company).  And carry any amount remaining owed or due on a ledger.  Or the company owning would send money to the company with the outstanding balance due to clear the difference.   Merchant banks carried out these transactions.  Who specialized in international trade and foreign currency exchange and acted as a clearing house for these bills of exchange.  The bill of exchange was a very valuable temporary storage of value.  And sometimes used as money.  One could even take it to a bank and exchange it for money for a small discount fee.

Buying and selling without exchanging money turned out to be very convenient.  And it spread.  Instead of taking cash to a utility we could mail a check.  Instead of mailing cash to a mail order company we could mail a check.  And we do.  We write checks from our bank.  That others deposit into other banks.  We write a lot of checks.  The volume is so great that massive computerized clearing houses process these checks.  Where computers read the magnetic ink on these checks and post payments and receipts to the individual bank accounts.  Where most payments and receipts cancel each other out.  Much like those bills of exchange at the merchant banks.

The Economy took off because of Banking and International Trade

As technology advanced we found other ways to pay without using money.  Credit cards were very popular.  Until people realize they have to pay the bank back.  Which led to debit cards.  Which is like writing a check at the point of purchase.  The merchant processes your debit card and your bank transfers money from your bank account to the merchant’s account.  Very convenient.  And no growing credit card balances.  Just declining bank balances.  Then came the Internet.  Which has taken the cashless economy to new heights.  And for those who still need cash while out and about you can always visit a convenient ATM.  One swipe of your debit card and the machine gives you cash.  And the ATM’s bank networks with your bank to transfer money from your bank account to theirs.  Automated by computers operating 24/7.  Spending money has never been more convenient.

Today most of our money is just numbers on some ledger.  Inside some computer.  Many of our employers even pay us electronically.  From our ‘pay check’ to the economic activity we engage in there is a whirlwind of banking activity behind the scenes.  As the banking community settles these accounts.  They do it quickly.  And efficiently.  Allowing ever greater economic activity.  And mobility.  Wherever you are you can log into some computer network (credit/debit card, ATM or Internet) to access your money and engage in economic activity.

People may not like banks.  But one thing for sure.  None of this would be possible without banks.  The economy took off because of banking.  Starting with those great Italian city-states of the 14th century.  And their international trade.  Their great merchant bankers leading the way.  Giving the world modern finance.  A modern economy.  And the way to a higher standard of living.

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From Commodity Money to Representative Money to Fiat Money

Posted by PITHOCRATES - November 8th, 2011

History 101

The Drawbacks to Using Pigs as Money Include they’re not Portable, Divisible, Durable or Uniform

They say we use every part of the pig but the oink.  So pigs are pretty valuable animals.  And we have used them as money.  Because they’re valuable.  People were willing to accept a pig in trade for something of value of theirs.  Because they knew they could always trade that pig to someone else later.  Because we use every part of the pig but the oink.  Which makes them pretty valuable.

Of course, there are drawbacks to using pigs as money.  For one they’re not that portable.  They’re not that easy to take to the market.  And they’re big.  Hold a lot of value.  So what do you do when something is worth more than one pig but not quite worth two?  Well, pigs aren’t readily divisible.  Unless you slaughter them.  But then you’d have to hurry up and trade the parts before they spoil because they’re not going to stay fresh long.  For pig parts aren’t very durable.

Suppose you have two pigs.  And someone has something you want and they will trade two pigs for it.  But there’s only one problem.  One pig is big and healthy.  The other is old and sickly.  And half the weight of the healthy one.  This trader was willing to take two pigs in trade.  But clearly the two pigs you have are unequal in value.  They’re not uniform.  And not quite what this trader had in mind when he said he’d take two pigs in trade.

Our Paper Currency Evolved from the Certificates we Carried for our Gold and Silver we Kept Locked Up

Rats are more uniform.  They’re more portable.  And they’re smaller.  It would be easier to price things in units of rats rather than pigs.  They would solve all the problems of using pigs as money.  Except one.  Rats are germ-infested parasites that no one wants.  And they breed like rabbits.  You never have only one rat.  Man has spent most of history trying to get rid of these vile disease carriers.  So no one would trade anything of value for rats.  Because these little plague generators were overrunning cities everywhere.  So rats were many things.  But one thing they weren’t was scarce.

Eventually we settled on a commodity that addresses all the shortcomings of pigs and rats.  As well as other commodities.  Gold and silver.  These precious metals were portable.  Durable.  They didn’t spoil and held their value for a long time.  You could make coins in different denominations.  So they were easily divisible.  Unlike a pig.  They were uniform.  Unlike pigs.  Finally, you had to dig gold and silver out of the ground.  After digging a lot of holes trying to find gold and silver deposits.  Which made it costly to bring new gold and silver to market.  Keeping gold and silver scarce.  And valuable.  Unlike rats.

But gold and silver were heavy metals.  Carrying large amounts was exhausting.  And dangerous.  A chest of gold and silver was tempting to thieves.  As you couldn’t hide it easily.  Soon we left our gold and silver locked up somewhere.  And carried certificates instead that were exchangeable for that gold and silver.  And these became our paper currency.

Governments Everywhere left the Gold Standard in the 20th Century so they could Print Fiat Money

The use of certificates like this is typically what people mean by gold standard.  Money in circulation represents the value of the underlying gold or silver.  And can be exchanged for that gold or silver.  Which meant that governments couldn’t just print money.  Like they do today.  Because the value was in the gold and silver.  Not the paper that represented the gold and silver.  And the only way to create money was to dig it out of the ground, process it and bring it to market.  Which is a lot harder to do than printing paper money.  So governments everywhere left the gold standard in the 20th century in favor of fiat money.  So they could print money.  Create it out of nothing.  And spend it.  With no restraints of responsible governing whatsoever.

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LESSONS LEARNED #4 “Wealth ain’t money; money ain’t wealth.” –Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - March 11th, 2010

WEALTH COMES FROM human capital.  People making things or doing something.  And it’s what they make or do that has value.  They trade these valuable things and services for other valuable things and services.  The more complex and diverse these good and services got, though, the more difficult it got to trade them.  Money came into use.  Instead of trading directly, you could trade for money.  Later, you could take that money and trade (i.e., shop) for what you wanted.  Money was not the end; it was the means to an end.  Trade.

This is important.  It’s the goods and services that are valuable.  Not the money.  We don’t want money; we want the goods and services that money will buy. 

The producers of these things and services are wealth creators.  Those who don’t produce things or services are wealth consumers.  Farmers, craftsmen, truck drivers, entrepreneurs, etc., are wealth producers.  Thieves, the lazy, government, etc., are wealth consumers.

THE DECLINE OF the Roman Empire began in the third century.  With a military flung across the known world and a bloated government bureaucracy, she was engaged in some serious deficit spending.  The government was trying to expand the purchasing power of her money.  They just weren’t collecting enough in taxes.  And the tax rates were pretty close to confiscatory.  I mean, they taxed so much that there just wasn’t anything left to tax.

The silver denarius was the main money used by the Romans.  When first introduced, it was approximately 95% silver.  They kept debasing it until it contained less than 1% silver.  With less precious metal (silver) in each coin, they were able to make more coins.  But this did not create more wealth.  The wealth producers weren’t producing more wealth.  With more money chasing the same amount of goods, prices soared.  And the value of the silver denarius plummeted.

The silver denarius became worthless.  No one wanted to exchange their goods and serviced for it.  The Romans wouldn’t even accept it for tax payments.  And it was their own coin!  If you had gold, you paid with gold, for gold was still gold.  Precious and scarce.  Unlike the silver denarius.  If you didn’t have gold, then you paid ‘in kind’.  You gave the government some of the valuable things you created with your human capital. 

Having destroyed their medium of exchange, they cut out the ‘middleman’.  Instead of collecting tax coins to buy those things of value the empire needed, they collected those things of value directly.  The efficiencies gained by the use of money were lost.  And, well, we see why this Roman period has the word ‘decline’ in its title.

IN THE VERY beginning of the United States, everything was brand new.  The federal government.  The federal budget.  And the federal debt.  Well, the debt itself wasn’t brand new.  It was the states’ Revolutionary War debts assumed by the federal government.  And to help pay off this now federal debt the new nation introduced its first ‘sin’ tax.  On whiskey.  Well, sort of.  It was placed on the producers, not the consumers of whiskey.

This reminded many Americans of Parliament’s taxes on the colonists.  Taxation without representation they had cried then and rebelled.  Americans don’t like taxes.  Who does?  So they would rebel once again.  The only problem was that it was different now.  It was taxation WITH representation.  It was a tax levied by the new American government, not by British Parliament.

But they rebelled despite this difference.  We call it the Whiskey Rebellion.  Because it was, well, I guess that goes without saying.  With memories of Shays’ Rebellion (poor farmers in Massachusetts rebelling against debt they couldn’t pay off and high taxes) still fresh in their memory, government moved swiftly to put this rebellion down.  And they did.

Farmers in Western Pennsylvania said that the tax wasn’t ‘fair’.  But why?  Didn’t it only tax whiskey?  And wasn’t limiting whiskey consumption a good thing?  Well, the problem was the lack of money to facilitate trade.  And the lack of roads.  The farmers in western Pennsylvania (grain farmers) had good farmland.  And good crops.  What they didn’t have was a good way to sell those crops.  Not as grain, at least.

What can you make from grain that is ‘valuable’ and easier to transport than grain?  You guessed it.  Whiskey.   And this is why it was not ‘fair’.  Farmers converted excess grain (something of value) into whiskey (something of greater value).  Whiskey was more portable than grain.  Smaller amounts of it equaled the value of larger amounts of the raw grain.  Whiskey was more durable than grain (it aged, grain rotted).  It took farming PLUS distillation to make whiskey so whiskey was scarcer than grain.  So they used whiskey to trade for things of value they wanted.  It was a medium of exchange.  Because there was little money available, those farmers used whiskey as money. 

It wasn’t a ‘sin’ tax to the famers.  It was a tax on their money.  It was, therefore, a tax on everything they purchased with that money.  It was a national sales tax.  Or a national value-added tax (VAT).  That only they were paying.

ANYTHING THAT HAS the attributes (scarce, divisible, stores value, etc.) of money can be money.  It’s that thing that helps facilitate trade between the wealth producers.  It’s a medium of exchange.  It allows people with human capital to produce more goods and services.   And that’s what it’s all about.  The goods and services.  It’s what we want.  Not the money.  We want the house, car, TVs, cell phones, etc.  We’d rather have those things than the money.  It’s why we trade the money for them.  We trade our human capital for money.  Then trade the money for the stuff we want.  Goods and services created by other wealth-creators using their human capital.

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FUNDAMENTAL TRUTH #4: “Wealth ain’t money; money ain’t wealth.” –Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - March 9th, 2010

CONSIDER THREE PEOPLE.  One is a drug addict that breaks into homes to support his habit.  He just scored last night.  Big.  Found about $2,000 in cash.  The second one is a liar.  He lies during job interviews to get jobs he isn’t qualified for.  The boss then fires him when he learns he lied himself into the job.  But he bought a lucky lotto ticket last night.  He won a million dollars.  The third person is a single mom slinging hash at a greasy diner during lunch.  When she works they need 3 waitresses to cover lunch.  When she’s off they need 4.

Right now they have the following money on them or in the bank:  the drug addict has $1,200; the lotto winner has $250,000.  The waitress has $800.  Based on these numbers, who has more money?  Not a trick question.  The lotto winner has the most money.  But who is wealthier?

A year from now the drug addict may be dead.  The lotto winner may be bankrupt.  But the waitress will probably still have $800.  Or more.  So, I ask again, who is wealthier?

WEALTH IS NOT money.  It’s ability.  It’s human capital.  It’s the talent people have that other people will pay them for.  It accrues with time.  And experience.  It doesn’t depend on luck.  You earn it.  You don’t steal it.

Our waitress is a good waitress.  If her diner closed for good tomorrow she could be working at another diner the next day.  In fact, some of her regular customers will probably follow her wherever she goes.  When it comes down to it, soup and a sandwich is just soup and a sandwich.  One diner’s may be just as good as another’s.  For those who want food fast without going to fast-food, service is everything.  Customers want good service.  And diners want good waitresses.  She delivers both.

BEFORE THERE WAS money we traded things.  We bartered.  Those with human capital, the ability to make or do things other people found valuable, made stuff or did things.  They then traded these for things they wanted.  Finding people to trade with AND who had the things you wanted took time, though.  Too much time. 

Time is…wealth.  Taking weeks to search the country for trading partners was time taken away from using that human capital.  The weeks spent searching cost wealth.  You couldn’t build things while you were searching.   People needed something better.  Something that made this exchange of goods and services easier.  Something that could temporarily store wealth.  Something portable.  Divisible.  Scarce.  Durable.

We call this temporary storage of wealth money.  We used lots of things.  Even pigs.  But you can see the limitation in using pigs (not very portable or divisible).  Dirt was more portable and divisible but it wasn’t scarce; it was everywhere.  We soon turned to silver and gold.  Then to silver and gold coins.  You could buy big things as well as small things (coins were divisible).  You could carry them in a pouch (portable).  We’re still finding Roman coins to this day (durable).  And it wasn’t easy to find gold and silver, process it and then mint it into coins (scarce). 

If you spent a week building something, you would take gold and silver in exchange for that thing you built.  Because you knew someone would exchange that gold and silver for the things you wanted.  This was a lot easier than trying to barter.  Can you imagine our waitress trying to barter her waitressing skills for a car?  I’m sure there may be a diner owner somewhere that has a car he is willing to trade for a period of good waitressing skills.  But good luck trying to find him.

WE NEED TO remember that wealth isn’t money.  Giving people money doesn’t make them wealthy.  People get wealthy from their human capital.  The greater their human capital the greater the amount of things they can trade for.  This is what stimulates consumer spending.  It’s recurring.  People can plan based on their recurring earnings.  The greater their earnings they can keep, the more they can spend.  And probably will spend.  Because they know they’re getting a ‘steady’ paycheck.  It’s not a one-time stimulus.  It will most likely be there tomorrow.  If not, they will most likely be able to find another employer who values their human capital.

To truly stimulate consumer spending you need to make it easier to build things.  Or to provide services.  Because that’s what we’re really doing.  Trading things.  Or services.  Money just makes it easier to do.  Without the underlying human capital, money would have no value.  For there would be no goods.  No services.  I mean, what good is having piles of gold and silver if you can’t trade it for something?

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